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(photo credit: AP)
Seeing a glimmer of hope in the Gaza Strip cease-fire, the EU opened two days of foreign ministers talks with Israel and its Arab neighbors Monday, trying to rescue the frayed Middle East peace process.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said lasting peace can only come if the international community reaches out to moderate Palestinians isolating radicals such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
She said the EU and the United States must lean on Palestinians to recognize Israel, foreswear violence and honor existing peace deals. The Palestinians are trying to form a national unity government that could restore direct international aid only if it meets these three conditions.
Livni spoke at a joint news conference with Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, host of the foreign ministers meeting; Javier Solana, the EU foreign and security affairs chief, and other senior EU officials.
Israel joined Sunday's Gaza Strip cease-fire "because there is a need to send a message to moderates on the Palestinian side," she said. Her comments dovetailed with a speech by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem earlier in the day, offering wide-ranging peace concessions to the Palestinians if they turned away from violence.
Livni said Olmert was ready to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas if the new Palestinian government commits to peace and frees a captured Israeli soldier.
Speaking on behalf of the 25-nation EU, Tuomioja said the Gaza Strip cease-fire provided "rays of hope" for peace and reiterated the EU will restore relations with the Palestinians once they have a national unity government.
"It is important the Palestinians have a credible, representative government which no one will have any excuse not to engage with seriously," he said.
Tuomioja chaired a meeting of the EU foreign ministers and their counterparts from Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Turkey and Tunisia.
The meeting capped a year marked by nine chaotic months of a Hamas-led Palestinian government that does not recognize Israel, and a July-August war between Israel and Hezbollah militants based in southern Lebanon.
Officials said given the bleak situation in the Middle East in recent months, the Euro-Mediterranean foreign ministers' meeting was unlikely to issue a joint statement. Disagreements focused on the future of the peace process and conditions for both sides to return to the negotiating table.
The cease-fire fueled hopes Israel and the Palestinians would be able to restart long-stalled peace efforts after five months of deadly clashes. Palestinian militants in Gaza fired two rockets at Israel on Monday, despite the two-day-old cease-fire.
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.
"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 the foreign ministers.
The emergence of a Hamas-led Palestinian government led the EU, the United States and other donors to stop direct aid - and Israel to withhold tax revenues on imports - to the Palestinian government.
The EU has crafted a financing formula that bypasses official Palestinian channels and pays those Palestinians hardest hit by the financial crisis.
The EU's Euro-Mediterranean aid program aims to shore up peace efforts by bringing Israel and its neighbors together in a partnership meant to lead to a free trade zone. To make that possible, the EU has since 1995 funneled â‚¬21 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.
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