Against the backdrop of a brittle Gaza Strip ceasefire, the EU opened two days of talks with Israel and its Arab neighbors yesterday to preserve what remains of the Middle East peace process and push ahead with broad economic assistance to boost chances for peace.
The meeting caps a disastrous year marked by nine chaotic months of a Hamas-led Palestinian government that does not recognize Israel and an August war between Israel and Hezbollah militants based in southern Lebanon.
Given the bleak situation in the Middle East, diplomats said the gathering of foreign ministers may not produce a joint statement, leaving it to the meeting's chairman, Erkki Tuomioja, the Finnish foreign minister, to sum up his impressions afterward.
Finland, which holds the EU presidency, has pushed hard for a declaration "but it has been impossible to agree on common language," said an Israeli diplomat, who asked not to be identified because the issue is politically very sensitive.
Disagreements exist notably over how to achieve security for Israel and the Palestinians and get both sides back to the negotiating table.
On Sunday, Israeli troops withdrew from the Gaza Strip under a cease-fire deal, but two major Palestinian militant groups continued to fire homemade rockets into Israel. The attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad tempered hopes for a lasting truce to end five months of deadly clashes.
Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen said that he hoped the cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians will continue to hold.
"This opens the opportunity to find a solution to the Palestinian problem [which] is the central issue in the Middle East," he said.
Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal said his group was willing to give peace talks six months, but threatened a new uprising if the talks do not lead to a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.
Complicating the formation of a national unity government -- that would see direct aid to Palestinians restored by international donors -- is Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel, renounce violence and honor existing peace deals between Israel and the Palestinians.
"The violence and suffering ... in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and northern Israel in the summer of 2006 have underlined the importance of reinvigorating the peace process," the European Commission said in a report to foreign ministers.
The EU's Euro-Mediterranean aid program aims to shore up peace efforts by bringing together the 25 EU nations with Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Tunisia into a partnership meant to lead to a free trade zone.
To make that possible, the EU has since 1995 funneled 21 billion euros (US$27.5 billion) in grants, aid and soft loans -- mostly to Arab nations.
The EU's main goal is to engage countries on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean in a "zone of peace, security and prosperity" by extending cooperation in areas including energy, tourism, environmental protection, education, law enforcement, migration, trade promotion and investments.
This has produced mixed results.
There is no peace and it is debatable if the EU has raised its standing in a region where the US remains the key to the peace process.
At a summit in Barcelona a year ago, held to mark the 10th anniversary of the EU's economic assistance for Israel and its neighbors, only one Arab head of state showed up.
At Barcelona, the EU failed to get its southern neighbors to jointly agree on a definition of terrorism.
A decade after the EU launched its Euro-Mediterranean partnership, "economic modernization and growth has most definitely not taken off in the Arab countries, European investment in the region remains at a depressingly low level and migration is a more divisive issue than ever," said Richard Youngs, of the Madrid-based think tank FRIDE.
"The cultural divide between Europe and the Middle East has widened, not narrowed. European intolerance has deepened and Arab anger against the West appears to have intensified," he said.
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