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(photo credit: AP)
Israeli, Arab and European Union foreign ministers were unanimously upbeat about Middle East peace prospects Tuesday after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reached out to Palestinians and a Gaza cease-fire took hold.
Ending two days of talks chaired by Finland, the meeting issued a joint statement in which Israel and its neighbors agreed in broad terms how to move forward to peace.
They said a "just, comprehensive and lasting solution" to the Arab-Israeli conflict lies in a Palestinian state living side-by-side, and in peace, with Israel as foreseen in the "road map" plan of the so-called Quartet of EU, the United States, Russia and the United Nations.
Agreement on even such vague language was a victory of sorts. In the past, several EU-Mideast meetings ended without any statement or saw door-slamming walkouts and Arab-Israeli recriminations.
More detailed language on peace steps was impossible, officials said, because the Israeli and Arab delegations disagreed on the phrasing of security and terrorism issues.
The meeting brought together the EU foreign ministers and their counterparts from Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Turkey and Tunisia.
The upbeat mood this time became evident over an unusually long dinner on Monday at the old city hall of Tampere, Finland's second largest city.
"There were no accusations, and everyone explicitly committed themselves" to the goal of a Palestinian state, said Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, whose country holds the EU presidency.
The meeting came hard on the heels of comments by both Olmert and Khaled Mashaal, the supreme leader of the Islamist Hamas movement, referring to Israel's 1967 borders in recent days. Their comments were seen giving new impetus to a peace process that fell apart in violence in the Gaza and a July-August war between Israel and Hezbollah militants in Southern Lebanon.
Olmert promised to evacuate many settlements on the West Bank, which is home to 180,000 Jewish settlers. For his part Mashaal, whose hard-line group is sworn to destroy Israel, spoke of a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders and backed away from a six-month deadline for that to happen.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told reporters the fact Mashaal spoke "of the Palestinian objective of borders of 1967 ... is an implicit recognition of Israel."
He added if a new "Palestinian government of national unity is put together quickly and meets the (peace) conditions of the international community," the EU will restore direct aid payments to the Palestinian Authority.
These were abandoned after a Hamas-led government came to power this year but refused to recognize Israel, end violence or honor past agreements with Israel - key Quartet conditions.
Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath, a member of the more moderate Fatah party estimated said "it will probably take another two weeks" for a national unity government to be formed.
Although the EU formed an alternative funding channel through the World Bank, Hamas' rise to power has gravely undermined the already precarious financial and economic situation of Palestinians, mostly because Israel has refused to pass on taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.