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Europe

EU, Israel Draw Nearer as Palestinian Question Lingers On

European Union foreign ministers announced this week they planned to step up relations with Israel, but remained adamant Jerusalem must forge closer ties with Palestine and other Arab states.

Two men shake hands in front of Israeli and EU flags

Europe has called for greater movement on peace with the Palestinians

In a joint statement after a meeting in Brussels earlier this week, the ministers called for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said a two-state solution should be sought.

The diplomatic upgrading paves the way for an EU-Israel summit likely to be held next year and tri-yearly meetings between EU and Israeli foreign ministers.

"It is the first time a prime minister of Israel will formally meet European heads of state," Rafael Barak, deputy director-general of the European department at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told DW-WORLD.

"We have had meetings with Mr. Sarkozy, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Brown, but formally with the EU we've never had an official meeting" he said. "So the fact that now we have this framework to have this kind of summit will give the necessary advantage of high-level relations."

But French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said that "no political significance" should be attached to the decision to boost relations with Israel.

"We also said ... that the 'deepening' of relations with Palestine would follow," he told reporters. It is "a little more difficult with the Palestinians, because there is no state, so it will be more complicated."

The Palestinian Authority has stood firmly against firmer EU-Israel relations, insisting Israel has not done enough to ease the humanitarian crisis in Palestinian-inhabited areas.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for Israel's destruction

Common interests

Barak said Israel would use the improved relations to work more closely with the EU on the question of Iran, the Palestinian conflict and Israel's northern border, which is shared with Syria and Lebanon.

"The three main aspects of our political agenda match with what is important for Europe and stability in Europe," he said.

"These elements are part of our daily dialogue with the EU. It's not an easy task ... and the situation on the ground is not always an easy one. But I think that being aware of the situation is important as is trying to solve all of this with a final status agreement (for Palestine).

"We know that membership of the EU is not in our cards so we are trying to improve our position with the EU."

Egypt Quartet meeting

But a long-elusive peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians looks no closer to realization, with the Quartet on the Middle East -- the US, Russia, the EU and UN -- which is involved in mediating the peace process, foreseeing at a meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Dec. 7, that no major breakthroughs were likely in the immediate future.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni stressed Sunday that she would not sign "any agreement that does not serve Israel's interest and that is not detailed enough to be put into effect. We are not there yet and it could take time."

Last November in the US city of Annapolis, Israeli and Palestinian officials attempted to revive talks over solving key problems such as the status of Jerusalem and the borders of a future Palestinian state.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said peace must serve Israel's interests

Barak, the deputy director-general, said that the presence of Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and Livni at the Egypt meeting sent a "strong message" that peace efforts were continuing.

"Yes, the goal is a two-state solution. We need more time, but we're making progress. Yes, we would like to keep these conversations discreet. Yes, we ask the world, in particular the Arab world, not to sit on the fence and try to offer support to the Palestinians," he said.

Czechs to work on Israel ties

Czech Republic, which takes over the rotating six-month EU presidency from France on Jan. 1, said it planned to continue working on strengthening the bloc's ties with Israel once it took office.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said that widened relations were "not only in the interest of Israel but also very much in the interest of the Palestinian people."

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