As members of the "Quartet" of mediators in the Middle East conflict, Germany and the EU have a keen interest in the outcome of Israel's parliamentary elections. But will they provide new impetus for the peace process?
Few went to vote on Tuesday
Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appears to be on course for victory on Tuesday, despite having seen his Kadima party's lead slip in the run-up to the elections.
Olmert has called the poll a referendum on his plan to redefine Israel's borders -- a plan which involves evacuating dozens of small Jewish settlements in the West Bank, while strengthening larger Jewish enclaves on land Palestinians want for an independent state.
Olmert plans to redefine Israel's borders if victorious
For his strategy to work, Kadima, the party founded by ailing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and its desired coalition partner -- most likely the center-left Labor party -- will need enough support to form a majority.
Experts say that's unlikely to happen.
"No party is going to get an absolute majority, so it has to be a coalition government, and the optimal solution would be a coalition between Kadima and the Labor party," said Middle East expert Udo Steinbach, head of the German Orient Institute in Hamburg. "What must be avoided is that (Benjamin) Netanyahu and the Likud party have any major influence, because they don't provide any perspective as far as the peace process is concerned."
But Olmert's plans regarding Israel's borders are not without controversy. Olmert has argued that the need to separate from the Palestinians is greater than ever since the militant Islamic movement Hamas won Palestinian elections in January. Although there is broad support among Israelis for his strategy, the EU, the United States and other players in the peace process are wary of giving Israel the green light to annex contested land.
Indeed, Israel's problems with Hamas could be worsened should Olmert win electoral support for his plan, Steinbach said.
Hamas' victory has muddied the waters of EU involvement
"The way that Hamas is going to behave to an overwhelming extent depends on what the Israelis offer them," he said. "If Olmert goes ahead in a unilateral way, that will likely radicalize Hamas, but if he makes them an offer to find a joint solution, Hamas could turn out to be a fairly pragmatic partner."
He added, however, that the problem of the settlements aside, Olmert is generally the favored candidate among Europeans.
"I would consider him to be reasonably pragmatic in terms of going along with the peace process, and going along with the international community," Steinbach said.
EU's Israel policy
Should Olmert be confirmed in office, there will likely be no great change in the EU's policy on Israel.
The EU backs the peace plan now known as the Road Map, which foresees a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In advancing this goal, Brussels performs a balancing act, striving never to appear too partial to either side.
Just as the EU deplores Palestinian acts of terror and demands that Hamas renounce violence, it also rejects certain aspects of current Israeli policy, such as the erection of the so-called security wall to isolate Palestinian communities, and the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.
In the past, the EU's involvement in the conflict was limited to providing financial backing and reconstruction aid. The bloc's evolution from mere financier to active political participant has been recognized by Shimon Peres, a former Israeli prime minister and current candidate for Kadima.
"There were times in Israel when people viewed the role of Europe skeptically," he said. "This is no longer the case. Europe is no longer just a payer but a player. The EU has fulfilled some tasks which nobody else could have done."
For his part though, Steinbach thinks Europe's mediation efforts have stagnated recently, in large part because of a lack of support from the United States.
"I think we were in better shape two years ago when the Road Map came into being," said Steinbach. "At that time, the Europeans were much more active, they were trying to push things into one direction or another and the problem was that the US was not going along with them."
German influence waning
Joschka Fischer made the Middle East a main priority
Steinbach is concerned that, with the US focusing on other countries in the Middle East, namely Iraq and Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is being neglected. Germany's involvement, too, has leveled off of late, he added. Under the previous Social Democrat-led coalition, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer took an unprecedented interest in the region, making numerous visits there for talks with leaders on both sides of the conflict. Under the new government, that's changed, said Steinbach.
"Whatever they're doing, they are doing within the EU context," Steinbach said. "Talking with Arabs, I have found there is a certain disillusionment about the German approach as far as the new government is concerned," he said.
"Other countries in the Middle East are watching very closely, and the new government is seen critically because it is viewed as doing more fence-mending with the Americans than having its own approach as far as the Middle East is concerned."