Solana defends EU's Middle East role

By Sharmila Devi Finacial Times

Published: July 26 2004

Europe will play a role in Middle East peacemaking "like it or not", despite suggestions from Israel that this role was no longer welcome, Javier Solana, the EU's top envoy, said on Friday.

During a visit to Tel Aviv soured by Israeli anger over European backing for a UN resolution that criticised Israel's West Bank barrier, Mr Solana sai d the 25-nation bloc had a right to participate because of its key interests in the region.

Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, had told the EU foreign policy chief on Thursday he saw little chance of an EU role after it helped pass the Palestinian-sponsored resolution at the UN on Tuesday.

Israel is furious about the united EU vote in the United Nations General Assembly in support of the resolution calling for the barrier's removal.

The EU foreign policy chief defended the bloc's stance on Thursday as Israel cancelled some of his planned meetings with government officials amid an atmosphere of worsening relations.

He said Israel should not have been surprised about the EU's position on the route of the barrier, which will eventually extend to more than 400 miles and cuts deep into the West Bank in some places. Palestinians say the barrier also reduces hopes for an eventual two-state solution to the conflict.

"The fence goes through occupied territories and from the very beginning we have been against that, it's no surprise," said Mr Solana in Israel as part of a Middle East trip that included Egypt and Jordan.

Silvan Shalom, Israeli foreign minister, said after talks with Mr Solana that Israel was "deeply disappointed by Europe's decision to vote with the Palestinians and against the fence". He said Europe's vote "encourages the Palestinians to continue their evasion of responsibility".

While the UN resolution is non-binding - and neither is an International Court of Justice advisory that preceded it - Israel is facing growing international pressure over the barrier that it says is necessary to prevent suicide bombers. Some 150 of the UN's 191 member countries supported the resolution, which was opposed by just six members, including the US.

Mr Solana on Thursday also raised pressure on Yassir Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, to allow an "empowered" prime minister to carry out reforms and root out corruption. Israel has long been urging the EU to boycott the Palestinian leader and follow the stance taken by Washington.

• Israel's Peace Now group on Thursday accused the government of understating the number of settler outposts in the occupied territories to the US, which has demanded they be dismantled under the road map towards a Palestinian state. Peace Now said 51 outposts had been built in the last three years but Israel has listed only 23.