"What we want to do, of course, is look to the future in our relationship between France and the United States -- and the relationship between the Europeans and the United States. And that clearly is the frame of mind that we want to develop and build on," Barnier said. "But, of course, the test of an enhanced Euro-Atlantic relationship will be the ability to relaunch the peace process between Israelis and the Palestinians. I'm convinced that this will be our priority in the coming weeks -- and indeed in the coming days -- as soon as the [Palestinian] elections occur on 9 January."
Experts see Barnier's remarks as part of a wider international push to revive Middle East peace efforts following the death of Palestinian leader Arafat in November.
In recent weeks, Palestinian and Israeli leaders have received a wave of visits from key diplomats who note a new sense of optimism there. That sense only grew last week when Mahmud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen), the front-running candidate to succeed Arafat, called for an end to the armed Palestinian struggle.
In Israel recently, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said the election for a new Palestinian Authority president is a "great opportunity" to move toward resuming talks on the "road map." The internationally backed peace plan envisages a viable, independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Other diplomatic visits since Arafat's death have been made by EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, and the foreign ministers of Russia, Britain, Egypt, and Spain. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to visit the region shortly before Christmas.
"The death of Arafat is obviously an opportunity," said Dominique Moisi, the deputy director of the Paris-based French Institute for International Relations. "It has opened a window of opportunity in the Middle East. The death of Arafat came at a moment when [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon had decided to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza. It coincides with the reelection of [U.S. President George W.] Bush. And it corresponds also to a state of fatigue of both Israelis and Palestinians who desire peace and the end of violence."
Moisi told RFE/RL that British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been the major force in trying to persuade the United States to rekindle talks on the roadmap.
"There is undoubtedly pressure for the restart of the Middle East peace process," Moisi said. "Those pressures are coming mainly from Europe -- and within Europe, from Great Britain. The French are largely behind Tony Blair's vision. But of course, their position vis-a-vis the United States makes their chances of pressuring Washington much less obvious than in the case of Great Britain."
Rosemary Hollis, head of the Mideast Program at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, said she believes the peace process will be restarted after the Palestinian elections -- particularly if the winner is Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen).
"We should expect a restarting of the Middle East peace process because most of the changes have taken place at the international level," Hollis said. "The European Union has determined that in his second term, George Bush will do something about the deteriorating Israeli-Palestinian situation. You have the British prime minister making it a personal objective. The Egyptians are now very much on board to help with the Gaza disengagement element in the Israeli prime minister's plan in hopes that this will lead to a wider [peace] process. And then you have the Palestinians deciding with the selection of Abu Mazen as prime candidate for the Palestinian Authority president that this is a moment they had better try and take."
But Hollis warned of potential pitfalls as well.
"The caveats are to do with divisions on both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides," Hollis said. "On the Palestinian side, there is impetus behind selecting Abu Mazen as the leader who will conduct renewed negotiations. Nonetheless, there is a lot of skepticism and outright opposition from Hamas to his call for an end to the armed conflict and his depiction of the Intifada as counterproductive to Palestinian interests."
In Washington, Powell told reporters that his meeting with Barnier did not include any discussion on a French proposal for an international conference on the peace process.
Powell said he had a brief discussion with Barnier about a conference that the United Kingdom is planning to hold in early 2005 with Palestinian officials.
Powell said Washington would be watching how the Palestinians form their government as well as ensuring that Israel shows flexibility and cooperation with the Palestinians during the election period.