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Sharon rebuffs EU diplomats

Tough weekend talks between European and Israeli leaders may have set the stage for more U.S. involvement in the region


"Idiocy": EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana on Sharon's demands

European diplomats are reportedly fuming after tough talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, during which the right-wing premier rebuffed EU plans to hasten Middle East peace negotiations.

Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, has dismissed Sharon’s stance as “idiocy” according to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Mustaqba.

Over the weekend, the EU proposed a quick restart to talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, which would have entailed retraction of a key Israeli demand – “seven days of calm” in Palestinian territories before substantive negotiations with President Yasser Arafat can begin again.

But the Israeli leader made no secret of his unwillingness to budge, telling a press conference that the demand for a week of calm “is our position and is going to be our position in the future."

European diplomats scrambled to put a friendly face on the closed-door clash. "I know that some people believe that the EU is closer to the Palestinian Authority," said Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who took part in the talks. "I can tell you that is not the case. That is not true. We are neutral, and we want to help both sides relaunch the peace process and bring an end to this conflict in this part of the world."

Just how the EU or any other foreign power can effectively engage the Israelis and Palestinians in constructive talks, at a time when the two parties are increasingly frustrated with each other, remains a very difficult question.

The weekend’s rebuff looks likely to throw much of the initiative back to the United States, which since its declaration of a “war on terror” has shown renewed interest in brokering a solution to the long-running Middle East conflict.

New demand for a deal

Despite George W. Bush’s initial efforts to steer clear, expectations of U.S. intervention in the region remain. European diplomatic initiatives – especially from Germany and Britain – won greater prominence through most of this year, but prompted no detailed peace talks and brought no end to the Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

Nearly 900 Palestinians and Israelis have died since September 2000, following a dramatic breakdown of negotiations between the two governments.

Yet the United States remains a more hesitant broker than it was under President Bill Clinton, now especially wary of being seen to reward violence with new political sympathy.

Secretary of State Colin Powell was set on Monday to give a major policy address regarding the region. Following recent U.S. affirmations of its long-term goal to see Palestinian statehood, Palestinian hopes are high.

But Bush administration officials have downplayed the address’s importance, pledging continued commitment to the current plan: a ceasefire, followed by a set of “confidence building measures”, and only then substantive negotiations on a lasting peace.