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Wednesday, 5 December, 2001, 17:31 GMT
Mid-East splits Europe and US
Palestinian boys running through cemetery
Recent Israeli attacks have worried the Europeans

As international attention focuses on the deteriorating situation in the Middle East, differences of emphasis have emerged between the United States and the European Union about how best to tackle the problem.

While the Americans are putting pressure on the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, to "respond forcefully" to those responsible for the latest suicide bombings, European spokesmen are also urging Israel to show restraint, and not to destroy the Palestinian Authority as an "indispensable partner for peace".

President Bush has urged Mr Arafat to "root out those who killed" Israelis in a series of bomb attacks in the last few days.

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine
French Foreign Minister Vedrine is urging Israel to negotiate
The European Commission agrees, but it believes pressure on Israel should be maintained as well.

It has urged Israel to limit its military response, and to operate within the rules of law.

Critical views

Individual European leaders, such as the French President Jacques Chirac, have been even more critical of Israel.

"To the hateful acts of terrorism in Jerusalem, which France condemns unreservedly, the Israeli Government is responding by destroying what subsists of the Palestinian Authority and the Oslo accords," Mr Chirac was quoted by his spokeswoman as telling the French Council of Ministers.

European officials have emphasised that, whatever the difficulties, Israel has to deal with the Palestinian Authority as a partner in the region.

The alternative, they argue, would be a good deal worse.

Yasser Arafat
The Europeans still back Arafat
Before the events of the last few days, the EU had been more optimistic about the potential for progress in the Middle East.

It saw a keynote speech, made last month by the US Secretary of State Colin Powell, as evidence that Washington was pushing for action on issues promoted by Europe.

That does mean clamping down on Palestinian extremists as a priority.

But it also includes demands that the Israeli economic blockade of the West Bank and Gaza, and the military occupation of Palestinian towns, should come to an end.

Strained relations

But Israel may not be in the mood to listen to European opinion at the moment.

Relations have already been strained by a court case in Belgium against the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

When the Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, visited Israel recently as the current President of the EU, he was given a hostile reception.

There is also a simmering dispute about Israeli products exported to the EU which come from Jewish settlements on occupied land.

It all means that Europe's diplomatic clout is somewhat limited, particularly compared to that of the Americans.

The EU does, however, play an important economic role.

Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt with Lionel Jospin
European leaders are seeking influence in the Mid-East
European financial aid helps keep the Palestinian Authority afloat, and the EU is also Israel's biggest trading partner.

As the European Union begins to flex its muscles on common foreign policy issues, the results have been decidedly mixed.

But it is determined to make its voice heard in the Middle East.

See also:

03 Dec 01 | Middle East
US diplomacy put to the test
03 Dec 01 | Middle East
Analysis: Arafat's hard choices
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