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EU: Greater Role Sought In Mideast Peace Process

European Union foreign ministers today met with their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts in Brussels in a bid to provide new impetus to the "road map" to Middle East peace. EU ministers also sought to reassert the bloc's role as an important contributor to the peace process. That drive was welcomed by Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom after today's meeting, although he indicated the EU needs to do more to "balance" its approach to Israel.

Prague, 21 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union today received a boost from Israel in its drive to assert itself as a key partner in the Middle East peace process.

News agencies quote EU officials as saying visiting Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom appeared "very positive" toward accepting a greater EU role in the implementation of the "road map" for peace in the Middle East. The process has so far been dominated by a renewed U.S. presence in the region. Diplomats say Washington has sidelined the EU from monitoring implementation of the road map.

Israel's suspicion of an EU bias toward the Palestinians has until now largely sidelined the bloc in the Middle East peace process, although the EU is one of four co-authors of the road map, together with the United States, the United Nations, and Russia.

After his meeting with the 15 EU foreign ministers today, Shalom said he had told his EU colleagues that he "fully supports" their request to play a "key role" in the peace process. He said he feels the time is right for a reassessment of EU-Israeli relations.

"I don't accept the formula that has existed for many years, that Israel can live without Europe and Europe can live without Israel. I think Israel and Europe have to live together, and that's why I'm encouraging the EU, all the time, to play a key role in the peace process and, more than that, I'm trying to convince the Israelis that there is a change in the European Union," Shalom said.

Shalom stressed the significance of the cultural and historical ties between Europe and Israel -- their shared values of democracy and the rule of law, their proximity, the fact that more than 50 percent of all Israelis hail from Europe. But he clearly indicated the EU must do more to allay Israeli concerns of a Palestinian bias. He said the EU needs to "change its approach," mentioning as one example the tendency of most EU states to vote against Israel at the United Nations.

The European Union has recently displayed an increased interest in Israel. Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister and the head of the current EU Presidency, has even raised the prospect of Israel's eventual EU membership.

More realistically, the EU's enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, said on a recent visit to Tel Aviv that both sides could benefit from upgraded economic ties. Israel is also one of the potential beneficiaries of the EU's "wider neighborhood" scheme.

Nevertheless, today's meetings brought little news in terms of the most sensitive issues on which the EU-Middle East relationship turns -- attitudes toward Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, EU views on the militant Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the freeing of Palestinian prisoners.

On Arafat, Shalom said he emerged from today's meeting with the feeling that Israel's strategy of isolating Arafat is gaining new supporters in Europe. "Now, more countries are aware that Arafat becomes an obstacle to peace, and that is why we have to strengthen [Palestinian Prime Minister] Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] because he looks more moderate and his government speaks with a new language. And that is why, not only us [but] the Americans and, I think, now many European countries feel the same and think the same," he said.

Yet, no EU country has so far publicly supported that view. Although Italy's Berlusconi snubbed Arafat on a recent visit to the Middle East, he has now said he will meet both Arafat and Abbas when he returns to the area in a few weeks. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was given a similar response in London last week when he tried to persuade British Prime Minister Tony Blair to cut all ties to Arafat.

Characteristically, the Palestinian foreign minister, Nabil Shaath, said today in Brussels that he, too, believes the EU will continue regarding Arafat as the legitimate head of the Palestinian people. "I leave this meeting fully assured that there is absolute unanimity by Europe -- and that includes the Italian presidency, the new members as well as the present members -- to support the democratically elected Palestinian president, President Arafat, but also to give full support to Prime Minister [Mahmoud] Abbas," Shaath said.

Earlier this month, and very much against Israeli wishes, EU member states also decided against putting Hamas on the bloc's terrorist blacklist. EU diplomats in Brussels have said the bloc believes such a move would hamper efforts at dialogue.

Finally, the EU has kept a low profile on the issue of the roughly 6,000 Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails. The Palestinian side wants them freed, and groups like Islamic Jihad and Hamas have dropped heavy hints that the future of the three-month cease-fire declared at the end of last month is in danger unless Israel frees all 6,000. Israel, in its turn, has said it is only prepared to release a few hundred.

Despite the EU's intensifying mediation efforts, the United States clearly remains the key outside influence in the Middle East peace process. Most eyes will already have been turned to Washington, which will host both Sharon and Abbas on consecutive visits later this week.