EU wants a significant step by Israel


EU: European Union foreign ministers have said that an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip could represent "a significant step" towards peace in the Middle East, but only if it is conducted in an orderly way.

In a statement following their weekend meeting in Tullamore, Co Offaly, the ministers said the EU was ready to help the Palestinian Authority to take responsibility for law and order in Gaza and to continue existing aid to the Palestinians.

"The Union stresses the need to avoid a political vacuum, and the dangers which that would involve, in the interim period between now and the beginning of any withdrawal.

"It recalls that there are a number of measures which need to be adopted in the period immediately ahead in the political, security and humanitarian spheres in order to prevent further deterioration and to resume progress," they said.

Saturday's statement reflected the anxiety expressed by some ministers over last week's endorsement by the US President, Mr George Bush, of Israel's plan to retain settlements in the West Bank after withdrawing from Gaza. Ministers were also concerned by Mr Bush's suggestion that Palestinian refugees could not expect to return to Israel following a final settlement.

"The European Union recalls its established position that the Union will not recognise any change to the pre-1967 borders other than those arrived at by agreement between the parties. The Union emphasises that no declared views on the possible shape of a final settlement can pre-empt the negotiation of that settlement.

"The European Union also notes that the refugee question and the manner in which the right of return may be realised is also a Final Status issue and that the roadmap states that a final and comprehensive permanent status agreement that ends the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must include an agreed, just, fair and realistic solution to this question," the ministers said.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, declined to criticise Mr Bush's initiative, but the External Affairs Commissioner, Mr Chris Patten, acknowledged that Palestinians could feel discouraged by last week's events in Washington. "An awful lot of Palestinians will have taken the view as a result of this week that their aspirations for a two-state solution have been knocked on the head," Mr Patten said.

The EU foreign policy chief, Mr Javier Solana, confirmed that a meeting of the quartet - the EU, US, UN and Russia - which sponsored the road map for peace in the Middle East will meet in early May. The French Foreign Minister, Mr Michel Barnier, criticised the US for failing to consult its international partners in advance of last week's initiative, adding that the quartet is composed of four partners, not one.

"Peace and stability will only be achieved if the Europeans are respected as partners," he said.

Germany's Mr Joschka Fischer said that the road map remained the only plausible route to a resolution of the conflict, adding that both sides knew that "painful compromises" would be required.

"All participants know more or less how it will look too, because these things have been discussed a hundred times. All the details are sitting in a drawer," he said.

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dominated the weekend's talks, the ministers also discussed the worsening security situation in Iraq. Mr Cowen said that violence was impeding the transfer of sovereignty and the reconstruction of Iraq.

"We are agreed that a strong UN role is an essential element for a successful political transition process. The EU looks forward to the UN playing a growing role, endorsed by the UN Security Council in the run-up to the transfer of sovereignty," he said.

Mr Patten warned that, if the process of reconstruction in Iraq goes wrong, the consequences could be more serious than those of the war in Vietnam. "The comparison ... that Iraq could become as difficult an issue as Vietnam is misplaced, because I think it is arguably much more serious. If things go wrong in Iraq we will be living with the consequences for a very, very long time," he said.