Israel's Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom met with his Palestinian counterpart in The Hague on Monday for the first time since Yasser Arafat's death. Shalom said a "door of opportunity" was opening for Middle East peace.
EU hopes to bring Israelis and Palestinians
The Israeli and Palestinian centers of government in Jerusalem and Ramallah are just a 15-minute drive from each other. Despite this, Silvan Shalom and Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian Foreign Minister, had to fly to The Hague to meet each other face to face.
After a brief bilateral meeting at the Euromed talks mediated by Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot, the two men broke the ice following several months of silence.
Israel's Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom
Shalom said that he and Shaath agreed "to try to be as positive as we can in order to find ways to narrow the gaps, even while we disagree about the substance."
"Both of us agreed that we are having a window of opportunity, it might be even a door of opportunity," the Israeli minister said.
The pair had last met on the sidelines of a conference in Rimini, Italy in August.
"I've said once again that I believe that in the new era, we might have a new, pragmatic, responsible and moderate Palestinian leadership," Shalom said.
He added that he told European Union officials including Bot of "Israel's commitment to doing everything in its power to ensure the smooth running of these elections."
He reaffirmed Israeli promises of free movement of voters for the Jan. 9 poll to elect a successor to the late Arafat.
"Israel and Europe agreed that the emergence of a responsible and democratically accountable Palestinian leadership is vitally important for all future peace efforts," he said.
But Shalom refused to commit Israel to allowing Palestinians in the divided city of Jerusalem to vote in polling stations.
"On the other hand we will do everything to keep our sovereignty in Jerusalem," he said, recalling that in 1996, residents of Arab-dominated East Jerusalem voted by postal ballot.
Status of Hezbollah
Palestinian Authority's Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath
Shalom also said that Bot had "declared his support" for an Israeli demand that the EU place the militant group Hezbollah on its list of banned terrorist organisations, "and we hope that other countries will follow suit."
"Hezbollah through its active and logistical support of Palestinian terror is one of the leading forces threatening the effort to bring stability and calm to the Palestinian Authority," he said.
On Tuesday, Shalom and Shaath (photo) meet again in a larger discussion round with other foreign ministers from the European Union and countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea.
The EU has been leading the Euromed forum for a decade, and despite the many setbacks in that time, remains convinced that the forum plays an important role in bringing Israelies and Palestinians closer together.