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The EU Backs Off On Israel

April 15, 2002

The EU Foreign Ministers buried talks of sanctions against Israel at their meeting in Luxembourg. But they are doubtful of Israel's idea for a regional conference.

EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana says US-led peace efforts in the Middle East are central to the bloc's stance.Image: AP

The European Union will for the time being not get directly involved in the Middle East conflict. The EU Foreign Ministers decided at their meeting in Luxembourg to rally behind US Secretary of State Colin Powell's peace mission.

Diplomats said the 15 nations were also set to reject a call by the European Commission for an emergency meeting with Israel to exert pressure on it to withdraw its forces from Palestinian areas, at least until Powell had ended his peacemaking drive.

In Madrid last week, the United States, the EU, Russia and the United Nations called for a cease-fire, a withdrawal, a third-party mechanism and a political process to build peace.

"We're not behind Powell just because we like him," said Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana. "It's because he has the Madrid declaration as part of his brief."

But while the EU's decision to back away from confrontation with Israel underlined its commitment to a multilateral political process, there were doubts about Israel's idea for a regional peace conference if it excluded Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"To my mind, it is a non-starter without Chairman Arafat or unless it's accepted by the Palestinians," one senior diplomat said. "It looks like something more should be put on the table for an international conference."

No trade sanctions

The ministers also ruled out sanctions against Israel over its West Bank offensive.

The European Parliament adopted a resolution last week which called on the 15-nation bloc to suspend its six-year-old Association Treaty with Israel. Under this, Israel enjoys preferential trade terms with its biggest trading partner.

The parliament vote mirrored public opinion in Europe, where there have been dozens of protests against Israel. But only Belgium had openly suggested suspending the pact. On Monday, its foreign minister backed down. "I am not a fierce supporter of tough sanctions," Louis Michel told Belgian radio RTBF.

Supporting the US peace mission

There has been slightly more support for a special meeting of the Association Council, which oversees the agreement, to engage with Israel. But the majority see backing US-led efforts for a political solution as the EU's best option.

"What we all want to see is a pathway to peace," said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. "That can only come through the kind of intensive discussions and efforts, however difficult, in which Secretary of State Colin Powell is currently engaged."

Still, the EU is keen to make its own contributions to a solution. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer last week proposed an international "security presence" to guarantee any peace deal after a cease-fire and an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories. The ministers in Luxembourg will also be discussing Fischer’s seven-point plan.