Saying Washington has "failed" in solving the Middle East crisis, the European Union announced Thursday it was taking a more aggressive peacemaking role in the region.
Israeli tanks smash deeper into the West Bank town of Nablus Thursday.
The European Union has launched its own peace drive, sending the EU’s foreign policy chef Javier Solana and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique to the region to press for a ceasefire.
But they appeared to hit a brick wall after arriving in Tel Aviv when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon slammed the door to their hopes at meeting Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. Sharon has told EU leaders he would put the question of a possible meeting to his cabinet.
“The decision is that he will stay in the place where he is and he will be isolated,” Sharon told reporters in Jerusalem.
The Israeli Prime Minister added that the current military offensive would continue.
On the Palestinian side, two Palestinian cabinet members said no official from their camp would meet the EU envoys until the delegation was also able to meet Arafat.
The goal of the trip, according to Solana spokeswoman Christina Gallach is “to keep putting all possible pressure on both sides.” And the delegation decided to fly to Tel Aviv today even though no assurances had come from Sharon that the EU leaders would be able to meet Arafat.
“We will try to persuade the parties involved, if possible at the highest level, of the need to immediately implement the U.N. Security Council resolution and to propagate an immediate ceasefire,” Pique had told Spanish state radio before getting on the plane to Israel.
The U.N. resolution, passed early last Saturday, called for a "meaningful cease-fire" and Israeli troop withdrawal from Palestinian cities, including Ramallah on the West Bank.
New Role for EU
The decision to send the mission came hours after Romano Prodi, head of the European Commission, urged Washington to step aside as primary peacemaker.
Bush telefoniert (nach US-Wahl), lächelt
Prodi (photo) told reporters in Brussels he wanted to make room for a broad alliance of nations to mediate an overall peace deal for the region. Those nations would include the EU, Russia and moderate Arab states.
“It’s clear (American) mediation efforts have failed and we need new mediation” or risk an all-out regional war, Prodi said.
For years the EU has taken a back seat to the US in Middle East peace negotiations. This latest move is the most aggressive by Brussels, which has been content up until now to take a back seat to America in the region.
It is not clear whether these new efforts will be welcomed. Israel has long viewed EU governments with suspicion as regards the Palestinian conflict, since it considers many EU states, particularly France, as pro-Arab and not suitable for negotiations.
Washington Shifts Policy
Under the Clinton administration, the United States was central in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Those efforts paid off in some instances, such as with the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords, which granted limited autonomy to the Palestinians.
Bush telefoniert (nach US-Wahl), lächelt
But George W. Bush (photo) has shown a marked reluctance to take an active or personal role in the region. He has met with Israeli Sharon four times, but has refused to see Arafat.
In recent weeks he has mostly left negotiations up to his Middle East convoy, Anthony Zinni or to Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Up to now, Bush has echoed Israel’s view that violence must stop before any peace talks can resume. But yesterday the White House suggested that the president was open to discussing the political aspects of a peace deal before there is a ceasefire on the ground.
That statement followed another on Tuesday in which the US president said he hoped the Palestinians could have “their own peaceful state.”
Bush has been under pressure from Europe to exert US influence on Israel to rein in its siege of Arafat’s headquarters and withdraw from the Palestinian territories. Middle East analysts have criticized the president’s failure to take action to end the cycle of violence.
“More and more voices are calling for what some people call a political horizon,” Phil Wilcox of the Foundation for Middle East Peace told Reuters, “or some tangible outline of the endgame.”