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Monday, 21 May, 2001, 13:23 GMT 14:23 UK
EU tries to ease Mid East tensions
Wreackage of factory on northern outskirts of Gaza City
Irael attacked a Palestinian factory in Gaza with helicopter gunships
By diplomatic correspondent Barnaby Mason

The European Union's senior foreign policy envoy, Javier Solana, is on a tour of the Middle East to try to help stop what he called the appalling cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr Solana has met President Mubarak of Egypt, and will also be seeing Syrian, Jordanian and Lebanese leaders, as well as the Israelis and Palestinians themselves.

Javier Solana
There is widespread doubt that Solana's visit will have any effect
But it experts say there is widespread doubt that the EU initiative can have much effect.

The European Union is a big economic player in the Middle East and has talked for years of taking on a political role in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

EU envoys have made many tours of the region, but the impact is always greater when the French president or the British prime minister, for example, takes a hand.

That, though, shows the lack of European unity. The former colonial powers have their own Middle East agendas, more or less independent of the United States.

Chance for involvement

Some EU governments saw the hands-off approach adopted by the Bush administration, after Bill Clinton's close-up involvement, as an opportunity for Europe to wield more influence, even to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians.

But as the violence gets worse, Mr Solana's tour has at least as much to do with the need to show that the Europeans care and will do what they can.

The one lever they have in theory is economic - they do a lot of trade with Israel and provide most of the aid to the Palestinian authority.

International pressure

But there is no sign of political will to use this leverage. When asked in Cairo about a possible EU economic boycott of Israel, Mr Solana said they wanted to be part of the solution, not of the problem.

Achiam Polonski comforts his daughter during the funeral of Tersa Polonski, killed by a sucide bomb on Friday
The violence shows no sign of abating
It makes more sense to see European moves now as part of the overall international pressure building up on both sides in the conflict to see reason.

Mr Solana was a member of the commission led by the former American Senator George Mitchell, whose report is published today.

Britain has backed the report, and the New York Times says the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, will use it to make a new proposal to the two sides.

Pressure is increasing on the United States to intervene, though Washington is not sure what to do either.

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See also:

21 May 01 | Middle East
Defiant Israel launches new attacks
19 May 01 | Middle East
Pressure grows for Mid-East ceasefire
14 May 01 | Middle East
The Mitchell report
19 May 01 | Middle East
In pictures: Day of mass funerals
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