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Thursday, 7 February, 2002, 13:50 GMT
Europe's growing Mid East role
By Middle East analyst Fiona Symon
Arab countries have long been pressing for greater European involvement in the Middle East peace process to counteract the perceived US bias towards Israel.
Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has said that Europe has a "moral and political responsibility" towards the region because of its former colonial role and its close ties to the Arab world.
But until recently Israel resisted direct European participation in its peace talks with the Palestinians because it too perceived Europe to be more pro-Arab than the United States.
As a result, Europeans have been either sidelined or completely absent from all the major peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians during the past 30 years.
It is true that the European Union has taken a consistently more sympathetic line towards Palestinian rights than a succession of US administrations over the years.
The Venice Declaration in 1980 was the first official European statement setting out a clear position on the Middle East.
It also recognised the need to involve the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the peace negotiations - something which the US at the time did not.
The EU explicitly recognised the Palestinians' right to a state at the Berlin summit conference in 1999 - whereas the US has only lately adopted this view.
Europe's ability to exert any influence on the Middle East peace process has been hampered in the past by divisions among the different EU countries. France has tended to have a more pro-Arab bias, while Germany and the Netherlands were closer to Israel.
This is illustrated by the EU's failure to act over Israel's claiming of duty-free status for goods made in Israeli settlements inside the West Bank and Gaza.
EU resolve has been strengthened by anger in Brussels over Israel's policy of "targeted assassinations" of Palestinians, and by the prolonged closures of the West Bank and Gaza that are blamed for worsening the prospects for peace.
However, for the duty-free status to be taken away, a consensus is required among the EU foreign ministers - something that has so far failed to emerge.
The 1992 Maastricht treaty, giving Europe a common foreign and security policy, was followed by the appointment in 1996 of a special representative for the Middle East to put Europe's proposals and guarantees to the various parties.
But while this led to a series of diplomatic tours, it had little effect on the strength of Europe's voice in the peace process.
In 1986, the EU granted a preferential regime for Palestinian products and in 1987, under European pressure, Israel agreed to the direct export of Palestinian products to Europe.
In the mid-1990s, the EU set about creating a Euro-Mediterranean partnership, with the aim of creating a free-trade zone between Europe and its neighbours in the Middle East.
Association agreements were signed with Israel in 1995 and with the Palestinian Authority two years later.
The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership remains the only multilateral forum outside the United Nations where all parties to the conflict can meet and where the Palestinian Authority is recognised as an equal partner.
Europe has taken the lead in financial aid to the Palestinians - something that has provoked criticism from Israel.
The EU is the largest donor of non-military aid to the peace process, giving 179m euros ($157m) a year on average over the past six years in direct support of the Palestinian Authority, refugees and regional peace process projects.
It was the first donor of financial and technical assistance to the Palestinian Authority providing over 50% of the international community's finance for the West Bank and Gaza Strip between 1994 and 1998.
But much of the effort to build stable Palestinian institutions and improve the economic situation of Palestinians has been undone by the intifada and the accompanying Israeli closures.
Europeans have recently been more assertive in attempting to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians, partly because of the vacuum created by the absence of the US as a mediator during the first few months of the new Bush administration.
EU and notably German leaders have been adopting a more high-profile engagement in the Middle East and this has been accompanied by a more conciliatory line towards Israel.
Under German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who enjoys the confidence of both the Israelis and the Palestinians, Germany has virtually adopted the role of unofficial mediator in the Middle East.
"It is pointless if one party receives me and the other refuses. In that sense, the change in European behaviour is significant," Mr Fischer has said.
Israel, too, appears to have realised it can no longer afford to ignore the views of its leading trade partner.
In 2000, trade with the EU represented 27% of Israeli exports and 43% of its imports.
Last November, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat held talks in the Baleares Islands that were joined by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.
This marks a break from the past, when Palestinians and Israelis tended to allow only Americans to mediate between them in these kind of three-way meetings.
Both the US and Europe regard the Palestinian intifada as creating risks for moderate Arab states and as an impediment to maintaining the international coalition against Osama Bin Laden.
There is therefore a move for greater co-ordination between the European and US positions and may ensure a continuing role for the EU as a mediator in future negotiations.
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