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Europe Steps up Peace Drive in Middle East

Close on the heels of British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer arrived in the Middle East yesterday. His visit is part of a fresh European drive to end nearly 17 months of bloodshed.


Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, left, and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in Tel Aviv

Europe looked ready to strike out on its own in the Middle East for the first time, at last weekend's conference of EU foreign ministers in Spain.

Several ministers condemned Washington's policies in the region, its marginalisation of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and its insistence on an end to Palestinian violence before talks could resume.

Instead they insisted on a "political solution" to the conflict.

But the views and opinions expressed at the conference were divergent and often divided.

So does the EU really speak in a single voice when it comes to foreign policy outside Europe?

In an interview with the Financial Times, an EU diplomat said, "Do we really have a common foreign policy? Take this week. Britain and Germany separately send their foreign ministers to the Middle East. Other countries pursue their own US policies. You call that a common voice?"

Toeing Washington's line again

In spite of all the tough talking during the EU conference in Spain, both Straw and Fischer during their visits to the Middle East stuck close to Washington's line in their talks.

Fischer, who arrived on Thursday after meeting President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, said there was no alternative to the peace process and that attacks must be curbed.

"The US and Europe never acted in closer co-operation on Middle East policy than in the last two years and that is how it should remain," he said in a speech at Tel Aviv University.

"The terror must be stopped and I think that the European Union and the European governments were right when they said that the armed intifada must be brought to an end."

"But on the other side it must be understood that the Palestinians have their fears," he said. Their fear is that they will lose more of their territory and never get a final status and when they get their final status, it will not be sufficient."

Has Fischer arrived empty-handed?

Despite the impassioned rhetoric, Fischer's speech contained no new initiatives or plans and his visit seems unlikely to push the two sides closer towards peace talks.

Last year Fischer was instrumental in brokering a short-lived truce between Israel and Palestine during a visit that coincided with a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv discotheque that killed 21 people.

This time, too, Fischer's visit was overshadowed by an outbreak of violence. Palestinian militants killed three Israelis in a bomb attack on a convoy on its way to a Jewish settlement in the Gaza strip on Thursday night.

But Fischer will be credited with continued recognition of the legitimacy of the embattled Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, when he meets him tomorrow. Arafat, who was has been confined to his residence by Israel, has become an isolated figure since Washington has all but cut ties with him.

Fischer has met Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer so far but was unable to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is ill with flu.

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