European Union Urges Engagement in Middle East

During regional talks between Arab and Israeli ministers at the Euromed meeting in The Hague, European Union officials called for a return to the Middle East peace process and continued political reform in the region.

photo: AP
Palestinian and Israeli foreign ministers Shaath and Shalom shake hands, aided by Dutch FM, Ben Bot

​​The European Union used regional talks attended by the Israelis and Palestinians in The Hague on Tuesday to urge its Arab partners to engage in the Middle East peace process and in political reform.

EU foreign affairs chief Javier Solana complained that the EU-Mediterranean (Euromed) dialogue, the only forum at which Israel sits down for regular talks with the Arab world, had long been held hostage by the Middle East conflict.

"That can and must change," he said in a speech to Euromed foreign ministers including Israel's Silvan Shalom and his Palestinian counterpart Nabil Shaath, who on Monday held their first bilateral talks in months.

The Euromed meeting was also attended by foreign ministers or their deputies from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey. Libya came as an observer, in another retreat from its international isolation.

"We, collectively and individually, must help the Palestinian people to succeed in their transition to a new direction," Solana said. "Everyone will be a winner: there will be more security for the Israelis and Palestinians, and more stability for the whole of our region and beyond."

Europe and the United States have expressed new hope for the peace process ahead of an election on January 9 to choose a successor to late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

A door of opportunity

Shalom said after meeting Shaath in The Hague that the election represented a "door of opportunity", and reaffirmed Israel's commitment to allowing free movement of Palestinian voters in the occupied territories. "Israel and Europe agreed that the emergence of a responsible and democratically accountable Palestinian leadership is vitally important for all future peace efforts," he added.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told reporters in The Hague that the Palestinian election represented a "new opportunity" for Middle East peace.

"Whether it could be used is an open question," Fischer said, underlining that the election was only one challenge along with an orderly Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the long-term task of building a Palestinian state.

"All in all, this is the whole set of problems we have to tackle together with our international partners in the Arab world and in the quartet," Fischer added, referring to the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States.

Arabs urged to continue reform

Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, said discussions among the Euromed ministers on the next steps for the peace process had been "very frank".

Bot urged the Arab world to deepen modernization and work with Europe to confront the challenges of economic development, trade, migration and the fight against terrorism and cross-border crime.

"We fully recognize that reform should come from the region itself. Nevertheless, Europe cannot stay at the sidelines of this debate. The common challenges are simply too important for that to be a possibility," he said.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the 25-nation bloc's executive arm was prepared to release around €250 million ($332 million) in aid to the Palestinians in 2005, the same as this year.

A new, positive atmopshere

She said the Euromed talks were marked by a "completely different atmosphere" between the Israelis and Arabs. "There was a lot of talk of moderation, of pragmatism, but there was also talk about good elections, the elections that have to be facilitated and supported by everyone," the Austrian commissioner told reporters.

"From the Israeli side, there was a very constructive tone. Now of course all these tones, all these sounds, they have to be transmitted into real things."

Deutsche Welle staff