Shortly before his Mideast visit, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, whose country holds the EU presidency, told DW-WORLD he was hopeful the peace process stood a chance provided the US invested more in it.
Asselborn wants the US to deepen its involvement in the Mideast
In keeping with the European Union's stated top foreign policy goal for 2005 to push ahead the floundering peace process in the Middle East, Luxembourg foreign minister Jean Asselborn, whose country holds the bloc's rotating presidency, heads a delegation to the region on Wednesday.
Asselborn is scheduled to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Labor Party leader Shimon Peres in Jerusalem on Tuesday and newly-elected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza on Wednesday.
Israeli soldiers stand near the Karni crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel on Jan. 13, 2005 after Palestinian militants set off a large bomb
Asselborn's visit comes at a time of rising tensions in the conflict-riddled region. On Tuesday, a suicide bomber killed an agent of Israel's Shin Bet security service and wounded seven other Israelis at an army checkpoint in Gaza. It follows another attack after the Palestinian polls on Jan. 9 that left more than ten dead on either side, leading Sharon to severe ties with Abbas for failing to rein in Palestinian militants.
Despite the setback, Asselborn is optimistic that peace still stands a chance in the Middle East. In an interview with DW-WORLD shortly before his visit, he said he hoped the recent attacks "were only a flame that can be quickly wiped out."
Asselborn also stressed he would make clear in talks with leaders in the region that the EU's prime goal was to ensure the Israelis and Palestinians get back to the negotiating table. "Both sides must once again talk about the road map so that the goal -- of a two-state solution where both people coexist in peace -- can be achieved."
Stronger role for EU
Experts agree that the EU will attempt to live up to its promises in the Middle East and pursue the goal of setting up an independent Palestinian state.
European Union foreign policy Chief Javier Solana, left during a tour in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya,
Mirjam Dittrich of the European Policy Center in Brussels, who maps political trends in the Middle East, said the EU would try to implement as soon as possible the four-point plan drawn by up by Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief last November.
That would mean aiding reforms to the Palestinian police force, organizing local elections and supporting economic development in the occupied territories. "The EU wants to play a stronger and more active role in the Mideast peace process," Dittrich said.
For more than a decade, the EU has been attempting to sustain the peace process with massive cash injections in the region.
In 2002 and 2003, the EU released half a billion euro for refugee-aid, institution-building and legal reforms. An additional €88 million ($114 million) were spent between 1995 and 2003 via the initiative "Middle East peace process projects" with the aim of propping up economic and social structures of civil society.
The EU remains the largest foreign donor for the Palestinian government. The election observation commission that the EU sent to the region for the presidential elections on Jan. 9 was the biggest of its kind in its history.
Engaging with the US
Europe's new-found enthusiasm for engaging more closely with the Middle East process has also led to misgivings that the EU might be seeking to profile itself as a prime peacemaker by edging the US out of the main mediatory role. In Dec. 2004, for instance, Sharon warned the EU to stop interfering directly in the political process in the region.
But, Asselborn stressed that the EU's peace role in the Middle East didn't stop at financially supporting reforms and development in the region, but crucially, also persuading Washington to work more constructively with new Palestinian President Abbas than with Yasser Arafat, who died in November.
"It's especially necessary, particularly at this time, that we don't just look at Europe in the transatlantic relationship, but rather tell the Americans that if they want to counter terror in the world, then a cornerstone of that fight must be a new relationship between Israel and Palestine," Asselborn said.
He added that the US had to deepen its engagement in the Middle East during President Bush's second term if peace was to be given a chance. "That's only possible if America invests much more in the Mideast peace process than it has in the past few months or years. We need to make that clear to the Americans," he said.
Asselborn's views were echoed by German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder this week. The chancellor told reporters before a visit by U.S. President George W. Bush to Germany next month that Abbas had shown his commitment to fighting terrorism.
"This is a clear signal that he has to be taken seriously. We would welcome more progress (towards peace) but this will only happen if the United States plays a stronger role than before, if it adopts a more dynamic approach."
Asselborn also underlined that the only way for the EU to persuade the US to take on a stronger role in the peace process was if the 25-member bloc spoke with one voice.
"I hope that we (the 25 EU members) can remain united and convince the Americans through our combined weight," he said. "We need to get away from the stereotype reaction that the Americans are on the side of the Israelis and the Europeans on the Palestinians. That really has to change."