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EU Leaders Grow More Critical of Israeli Peace Plans

Officially, EU foreign ministers concluding a meeting on Saturday dismissed allegations they are at odds with the U.S. over Bush's decision to back Israel's unilateral peace plan. But is that really the case?


EU foreign affairs ministers are not happy with Israel's plans, but they're trying hard not to show it.

EU foreign affairs ministers wrapping-up a two day informal meeting in Tullamore, Ireland on Saturday tried to dismiss allegations they are at odds with Washington over U.S. President George W. Bush's decision to back Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral peace plan.

But while the official statement issued after the conclusion of the meeting towed a diplomatic line, many high-ranking EU officials and politicians -- including the EU's Commissioner for External Relations Chris Patten and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder -- made comments quit to the contrary.

The official word on the Middle East

In a statement released after the conclusion of the meeting, the EU foreign ministers were careful to stress the positive aspects of recent developments. "The European Union welcomes the prospect of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip," the statement said. "The European Council has stated that such a withdrawal could represent a significant step toward the implementation of the 'road map', provided that it is carried out in accordance with certain conditions."

In reality, many EU politicians -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who gave his support to the plan while visiting Bush in Washington on Friday, being a notable exception -- have grown more critical of Washington's recent about-face. They are particularly concerned about Bush's decision to endorse Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral plan -- i.e. not negotiated directly with the Palestinians -- to withdraw from Gaza while retaining parts of the occupied West Bank.

Sharon's decision has left many in the Palestinian community feeling alienated and some experts worry Palestinian extremist groups will turn that to their advantage.

It's up to Europe to sort things out

Increasingly, polite diplomacy has given way to outright criticism, and many foreign ministers attending the meeting voiced their concerns. "It is deeply concerning when one party decides something that deviates from what others have agreed upon and even the United States has agreed on," said Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds.

Chris Patten, the EU Commissioner for External Relations, was far more blunt, saying that the U.S. decision to back Israel's unilateral plans had done a lot of damage. "An awful lot of Palestinians will have taken the view as a result of this week that their aspirations for a two-state solution have been knocked on the head," he told reporters. "I think there's an awful lot of damage to repair…we in Europe have to assist in doing that, because it's in all of our interests to get a settlement."

In an effort to get the ball rolling, the EU foreign ministers recommended that the so-called Quartet -- including the EU, Russia and the United States -- who are sponsoring the "road map" initiative meet as early as the end of the month to come up with a plan to revive the stalled process to the satisfaction of both sides.

Schröder critical of the U.S. about face

Meeting with the Egyptian President Husni Mubarak in Hanover on Friday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder voiced many of the same objections. "The Palestinians have the right to expect that decisions will not be made over their heads," he told reporters.

German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, who also met with Mubarak, said that Europe would take on a "decisive role" in the Middle East in the coming months in an effort to bring lasting peace to the region. "Peace -- the kind that lasts -- can only be worked out between the two parties in conflict," he said.

Whether or not pressure exerted by European leaders can bring both sides back to the negotiating table remains to be seen.

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