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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 December 2006, 11:49 GMT
Europe mulls new role in Middle East
By William Horsley
BBC European Affairs Analyst

Palestinian Authority security officer
A ceasefire has been holding in Gaza in recent weeks
European powers are asking themselves what they can do to revive the stalled peace talks between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

Last week the US Iraq Study Group report criticised the administration of President Bush, saying that to achieve its goals in Iraq and the wider Middle East, America must commit itself with renewed energy to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

The report's eminent authors, including former US Secretary of State James Baker, called for direct talks between Israel and its neighbours Lebanon, Palestinians ("those who accept Israel's right to exist", they make clear), and Syria.

On the ground, however, the prospects of meaningful peace talks look bleak. And US influence is at a very low ebb.

The deadlock over a hoped-for exchange of prisoners, top-level talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and a general ceasefire, has dragged on for months.

In Gaza a fragile ceasefire is in place, but tensions are dangerously high.

And in Lebanon the Western-backed government is teetering in the face of mass protests.

Yossi Beilin
Former Israeli minister, Yossi Beilin, sees the US's role as "negative"

Yet among both Israelis and Palestinians some serious figures now say the US has become an obstacle to peace moves.

They are calling for European nations to take a lead in re-launching a peace process in tandem with America.

Take Dr Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli minister who played a major role in attempts to make peace with the Palestinians in the 1990s.

"The role of the Americans is a negative one", he says.

"For the first time in history they are pushing us not to negotiate with others."

He was referring to Israel's stalled contacts with Syria, and before that with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Israeli leaders now refuse to deal directly with Mahmoud Abbas, the current Palestinian leader, because the militant group Hamas won elections for the Palestinian Authority early this year.

The Europeans are the largest donors of aid to the Palestinians and use that position to demand wide-ranging reforms.

Europe could also have considerable leverage as Israel's largest trading partner if it chose to use it.

So far it has not done so.

Dr Beilin calls on the Europeans to get directly involved through shuttle diplomacy.

West Bank barrier
Europe could push for the removal of Israel's "security barrier"

"What I need is a much more independent European policy", he insists.

'US obstruction'

Or take this plea from the independent Palestinian lawmaker, Mustafa Barghouti, a well-known moderate voice.

"The US is obstructing any new initiatives, like the international conference" (aimed at a broad-ranging Middle East peace), he says.

The Europeans, in Dr Barghouti's view, "are in a strong position to push Israel to give up its settlements and its horrible apartheid wall, and to give up the territories that it illegally occupied in 1967."

That is not quite how the Europeans see it.

Now, as in the past, it is widely accepted in European capitals that their countries are too weak; that America's overwhelming military and diplomatic might makes it the only power capable of bringing Israelis and Palestinians together to talk peace.

And Israel has consistently ignored European appeals to hand over some $700m (530m euros; 355m) in Palestinian customs dues which Israel has collected but refused to give up.

The Western consensus on the Middle East has come under great strain.

And last month three European countries - Spain, France and Italy - suddenly announced their own proposals for promoting peace.

We have made too many plans. What I want is peace
Javier Solana
EU foreign policy chief

Bernadino Leon, Spain's deputy foreign minister, told the BBC that his government spoke out because, he said, after years of stalled diplomacy the situation in the Middle East is "probably the worst we witnessed for many, many years".

Peacekeeping role

The three countries now claim a more direct stake in the region's future as the main contributors to the new UN peacekeeping force that is trying to maintain peace in southern Lebanon following this summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah fighters.

One of the European trio's proposals - to send international monitors to Gaza to give security assurances to both sides - was welcomed by leading Palestinians, but was coldly turned down by the Israeli government.

Yossi Beilin said his government had been wrong to reject that idea.

Hamas supporters
Many Israelis think Europe does not understand the threat of Hamas

From Madrid Bernadino Leon also explained another, more radical, proposal - to bring forward the proposed international conference on Middle East peace with the goal of putting all the main issues on the table at once.

That would challenge the step-by-step approach of the so-called "road map", which has served, with precious little success, as a blueprint for reviving peace moves over the last three years.

In Israel, a recent speech by prime minister Ehud Olmert revived talk of a partial Israeli withdrawal, in time, from occupied Palestinian lands.

But he made clear that prospect was conditional on reforms on the Palestinian side which may not be met.

David Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, says the Israeli public feels deep-seated suspicion not just towards Palestinian peace overtures but towards any European part in them.

He believes that some European leaders have failed to grasp the unchanging essence of Hamas as "an extremist organisation committed to eliminating Israel".

Two-state solution

Europe, he suggests, risks harming the international consensus against extremism by giving a "nod or a wink" to Hamas that if it holds firm Europe might soften its position.

Right now the Palestinians are clamouring for more help from Europe to ease their harsh conditions of life and to bring the agreed goal of a two-state solution closer.

Spain, France and Italy have sought to step into a field long dominated by the Americans.

But as before their voices risk being drowned out.

Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, has not taken on board the plans championed by Spain, France and Italy.

"We have made too many plans," he declared. "What I want is peace."

But how?

Mr Solana, like a host of European ministers, travels indefatigably to the Middle East to urge the principal actors towards agreements.

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair will follow him later this week, after an EU summit ends this Friday.

Yet a worrying possibility now hangs over Europe's involvement in the Middle East: that it may be too close to the Americans to command respect; and the many different voices being raised in Europe make it hard to discern a clear purpose.

Until that picture changes the scornful words of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will continue to sound in European leaders' ears.

"You", he once said, "are payers, not players" in the Middle East.

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