European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique -- representing the current EU presidency -- flew to the Middle East this morning. After an emergency meeting in Luxembourg last night, EU foreign ministers promised "plain speaking" on the Mideast issue but were unable to say what extra pressure could be put on Israel and the Palestinian Authority to declare an immediate cease-fire.
Brussels, 4 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union last night decided to launch another round of shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, with the aim of convincing Israel to relieve military pressure on the Palestinian Authority.
The delegation, which left for Jerusalem and Tel Aviv early this morning, is headed by Spain's Foreign Minister Josep Pique -- representing the current EU presidency -- and Javier Solana, the EU's chief of foreign and security policy.
The trip follows a call yesterday by European Commission President Romano Prodi for the EU to replace the United States as the chief mediator in the conflict.
However, neither Prodi nor the delegation envoys were able to say how they intend to succeed where months of previous efforts -- many of them conducted by diplomats representing either the EU or its member states -- have failed.
Speaking after last night's meeting in Luxembourg of EU foreign ministers, Pique defended the mission, saying it would go beyond ordinary mediation efforts.
"I am talking about concrete actions. I believe there are enough political ideas. There is a security plan, the Tenet plan; [and] a political plan, the Mitchell report. There are very important political initiatives -- the Saudi initiative, endorsed at the Arab summit. There are the political ideas of the state, of a viable Palestinian state, in economic, territorial and social terms. And what we need now is to be able to create the necessary conditions to implement all these plans. So we need concrete actions. This is the reason why we have decided to go there [to the region]," Pique said.
Both Pique and Solana said repeatedly last night that the EU will tell both sides to respect recent UN Security Council resolutions calling for an immediate end to violence.
"Tomorrow [4 April] there will be a representation of the European Union in the region to make very clear our position, as President [Prodi] has said, which is basically the rapid implementation, the immediate implementation of the resolution 1402 of the UN, which is not a resolution taken two months ago or two years ago. It is a resolution taken about a few days ago. It has to be implemented immediately. That is the position of the European Union and that is what we are going to make very clear," Solana said.
Resolution 1402, adopted on 31 March by the UN Security Council, calls for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian cities and a return to political peace negotiations. Pique and Solana also said they will push for the implementation of resolution 1397, passed in mid-March, which affirms the vision of a Palestinian state.
Both officials made it clear the EU expects Israel to take the first step toward implementing the resolutions. After last night's meeting, Pique said Israel needed to stop the attacks against the Palestinian Authority.
"We insist that the legitimate fight against terrorism -- which we all take part in without any reservations -- cannot justify the destruction of the power structures of the Palestinian Authority, which is the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and therefore the basis of a future Palestinian state, which we all consider to be part of a final solution of the conflict," Pique said.
Initially, EU foreign ministers decided that -- should a meeting be possible with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat -- the delegation would be led by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Solana said meeting Arafat was the main goal of the visit.
However, the absence of Aznar from today's delegation and reports this morning from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's cabinet indicate the EU delegation will not be allowed to meet with Arafat.
Israel today signaled the EU mission will be welcomed by Israeli officials but was noncommittal on the question of whether the delegation will meet with Arafat.
Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, speaking today at the Aspen Institute in Berlin, said the European Union "is a very important actor in the Middle East, and Israel maintains a full dialogue with European Union officials who come and visit Jerusalem and speak to [Israeli] Prime Minister Sharon and Foreign Minister Peres."
This, along with the fact that Israel has long considered the EU to be biased toward the Palestinians, suggests the EU mission is unlikely to achieve any immediate breakthroughs.
Spain's Foreign Minister Pique admitted as much last night, saying the EU would "wait and see" and act only after "taking stock" of the results of the visit.
"We have asked for meetings with everyone -- with President Arafat and Prime Minister Sharon -- and we are waiting to see if it will be possible. So, nobody is talking about preconditions or other things. We will see how far we can go and this is our attitude. We will try to do whatever is appropriate. If we can talk to everybody, so much the better. If it cannot be this way, we will evaluate the situation," Pique said.
The EU delegation is likely to try and promote the idea of a broad-based international peace conference, supported by many member states and yesterday also discussed by Commission President Prodi. "It is clear that [American] mediation efforts have failed and we need new mediation," Prodi said.
He added that the EU -- with its "many and strong relations" in the Mideast -- should make its voice heard, together with the United States, United Nations, and Russia.
However, this idea was rejected last night by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. According to Reuters, Powell said such a peace conference can only take place if it is clear what purpose it will serve.
Speaking in Washington, Powell added: "The immediate problem is to get control over the terrorism and the violence in the region. And until that is done, conferences that lay out different kinds of political goals or new political initiatives just take us off the main point."
EU ministers appeared to tacitly agree last night that any new initiatives would first have to be endorsed by other major international actors.
Solana indicated last night this will only happen in the middle of next week, when Madrid will host Powell, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.