The EU on Monday will try to jump-start the Middle East peace process at talks attended by Israeli and Palestinian representatives. Other topics include trade with Syria and relations with Libya.
Euromed brings together Israel and its Arab neighbors
The meeting of foreign ministers from the European Union and countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea (Euromed) on Monday and Tuesday in The Hague comes at a rare moment of hope for the peace process as the Palestinians prepare to elect a new leader to succeed the late Yasser Arafat.
The Euromed process itself, according to the EU's claim, is the only regional forum where Israel and its Arab neighbors sit together for dialogue, albeit anchored on the Mediterranean nations' trade and political ties with the European Union.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and his Palestinian counterpart Nabil Shaath are expected to attend the meeting. Ministers from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey will also be present.
Libya, although not yet a member of the EU's "Barcelona Process" of dialogue with Mediterranean nations, will attend as a guest of the 25-nation bloc's Dutch presidency in another sign of the North African country's re-emergence onto the global stage.
Middle East main agenda item
The meeting will be held at a "crucial" juncture, an EU presidency statement said, listing "the status of the peace process after the death of Palestinian leader Arafat, Iraq and modernizing the Middle East" as main agenda items.
Following Arafat's death on Nov. 11, the United States and Europe are both enthusiastically supporting an election planned for Jan. 9 to find a new president for the Palestinian Authority.
Israel has promised to do all it can to smooth the process of holding of the election, leading officials to hope that this week's meeting in the Dutch seat of government can provide a rare example of Middle East cooperation.
"We hope that it will be an opportunity for the Barcelona Process members to give a positive signal, both to the peace process and to regional cooperation," an Israeli diplomat said.
No Israeli-Palestinian talks planned
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom
But there are no plans for Shalom (photo, right) to hold bilateral talks with his Palestinian counterpart in The Hague as Israel does not want to be seen taking sides ahead of the election, an Israeli source said.
"We have to be very careful with whom we meet," the source said, according to AFP news service. "We don't want people to be portrayed as an Israeli agent. We'll wait, I think, until after the elections."
EU officials led by Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot and foreign policy chief Javier Solana will hold their own bilateral contacts with the Israeli minister on Monday afternoon.
Palestinian Authority's Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath
That will be followed by an EU session with the Arab ministers, including Shaath (photo).
EU trade with Syria
On the wider Euromed agenda, the EU is finalizing a trade and political "association agreement" with Syria, the only one of the Barcelona Process countries still to sign such an accord.
After being held up by differences over a clause on weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the agreement has now been negotiated and is awaiting translation for the formal signature.
Once Syria is on board, one more obstacle will have been removed from the goal of a Euromed free-trade pact by 2010, which along with anti-terrorism cooperation and cultural dialogue will also be discussed at The Hague.
Still problems with Libya
Libya remains outside the Barcelona Process but has recently begun to come in from the international cold after Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi renounced his own WMD program.
Recently French President Jacques Chirac traveled to Libya to discuss trade possibilities with Gadhafi and this week a German-Libyan economic conference is taking place with business leaders from both sides examining new ways to boast ties between Europe and North Africa.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and then EU Commission President Romano Prodi during a meeting in Brussels in April
Despite the improvement on the trade and economic side, Tripoli's cause in Europe has hurt by death sentences hanging over five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor found guilty in May of infecting hundreds of Libyan children with HIV.
"The EU has made clear that on current evidence we do not consider the condemnation and imprisonment of these people justified," an EU official said. "This has to be resolved before Libya can take up its place within this process," he said.