French FM meets with Arafat despite Israeli objection

By Reuters

Haaretz

June 30, 2004

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier met Yasser Arafat on Tuesday despite Israeli calls to shun the Palestinian Authority chairman and called for a revival of a violence-stalled peace "road map."

Barnier also voiced support for deploying "an international presence," including European observers, in the Gaza Strip after a planned Israeli pullout.

"The Palestinians have to put an end to acts of violence and punish those responsible," Barnier told a news conference at Arafat's battered West Bank headquarters.

"Israel also must take some measures such as to stop building the wall and to stop the acts of demolition," he said, referring to a West Bank barrier and destruction of Palestinian homes in army raids against militants.

Barnier said France backed Egypt's security plan for Gaza, which includes a proposed ceasefire and the dispatch of Egyptian experts to train and help revamp Palestinian security services before an Israeli withdrawal to keep militants in check.

"We have to seize every opportunity - the Egyptian efforts and the Gaza withdrawal - so we can return to the 'road map' to establish two states that live next to each other and enjoy peace," Barnier said.

Co nstant violence has stalled the road map, a peace plan based on mutual Israeli-Palestinian confidence-building measures backed by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

At the news conference, Arafat promised to "exert maximum efforts to ensure the success" of the Egyptian proposal. He said the Palestinians had welcomed Cairo's ideas on "reorganizing the security forces and strengthening them."

Barnier had been due to visit Israel after meeting Arafat, but Israel, which has urged the international community to shun the Palestinian leader it accuses of fomenting violence, scheduled a separate visit by the French minister for September instead.

Arafat has denied encouraging bloodshed in nearly four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

In what he calls a move that will bring peace closer, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pledged to carry out a unilateral evacuation of all Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and four of the 120 in the West Ban k by the end of 2005.

Sharon has fuelled Palestinian suspicions about the plan by coupling the proposal with a pledge to hold on to parts of the West Bank permanently.