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Europe

Gulliver Can't Do It Alone

What had been boiling under the surface for weeks finally burst out into the open over the weekend.

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Straight talk, but too much swagger?

France's Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine and the British EU external relations commissioner Chris Patten lashed out verbally at US foreign policy in the past few weeks, reserving particular ire for Bush's "axis of evil" speech.

"I find it hard to believe that is a thought-through policy," Patten told the British newspaper, the Guardian.

He said the tone was "deeply unhelpful." Patten's comments came during a particularly feisty two-day summit of the foreign ministers of the 15 European Union countries in Spain over the weekend.

What emerged was a group more resolved at making sure Washington's "war on terror" doesn't run rampant through the world. "Gulliver can't go it alone," Patten said in the Guardian interview. "and I don't think it's helpful if we regard ourselves as so Lilliputian that we can't speak up and say it."

Focus: Middle East

The ministers were particular adamant about involving themselves more in the Middle East.

The Israel-Palestinian conflict has gotten more violent since Washington stepped back a few weeks ago.

On Monday, Palestinians were bracing for an Israeli retaliatory strike after two Palestinian gunmen killed two female soldiers at a café on Sunday.

The EU ministers advocated a more pragmatic, political solution to ending the 17-month-old conflict than either Israel or America has taken. Israel, backed by the United States, has maintained that there must be a week without violence before any negotiations can take place.

A French solution

France's Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, who publicly criticized Washington's Middle East stance last week, proposed a solution that calls for the immediate international recognition of a Palestinian state.

Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat should then call for elections "to support the Palestinian Authority's popular legitimacy in its efforts to crack down," on extremists.

His colleagues reacted skeptically. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who has involved himself frequently in the conflict in the past year, said the more radical elements in the Palestinian Authority could gain power if elections were to be held at present.

Instead, Fischer proposed circulating a petition for a referendum among the Palestinians.

The referendum would demand a start to peace talks, an end to the Intifada and the recognition of the state of Palestine.

The ministers have asked the Spanish government, which currently holds the EU's revolving presidency, to write up possible solutions before they meet next on February 18.

Stopping the military strikes

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has refused to negotiate any further with Arafat and tried unsuccessfully to convince Washington to do the same on a state visit last week.

Arafat, who has been trapped in the West Bank by Israeli tanks since December, has said that his immobility has kept him from doing more to stop ambush and suicide attacks by Palestinian terrorists.

His stance won him supporters at the European ministers meeting. "You can't ask him to make 100 percent effort but at the same time limit and weaken his freedom of movement," said Josep Pique, the foreign minister of Spain, which currently holds the European Union's presidency.

The United Nations envoy to the region, Terje Roed-Larsen agreed. Two of his staffers were injured in the café attack in Beersheba.

"Israel's security needs will not be met by hitting civilian targets or by destroying the Palestinians' ability to police and maintain order," he said in a UN statement.

Israeli jets shot missiles at a Palestinian security compound in the Gaza Strip on Sunday following the Beersheba attack. Germany's development minister, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul has also weighed in critically on Israel's military response.

More than 17 million euro worth of EU investment in Palestinian infrastructure has been destroyed in rocket or missile attacks, she said. Germany alone invested 7.5 million euro in the Gaza airport, destroyed last month by an Israeli retaliatory strike.

Nothing without the Americans

But for all their initiative, both the group of EU foreign ministers and Israel know nothing gets moving in the region without Washington's approval.

American officials have been lukewarm to European involvement in the Middle East in the past. In response to the proposals, a US State Department spokesman said the focus should be on getting Arafat to reduce violence.

Moving away from that focus "doesn't really move the situation forward." The Europeans may try. Both British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Fischer plan trips to the Middle East this week.