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(photo credit: AP)
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, embarked on a six-day mission to the Middle East Wednesday, aiming to breathe new life into the stalled peace effort.
It was Solana's first visit to the region since the full deployment of an expanded UN force in southern Lebanon following the recent fighting between Israel and Hizbullah.
Following this summer's conflict, key Mideast players have been seeking to make a renewed push to restart talks between Israelis and Palestinians as part of a broader peace effort in the Middle East.
Solana wants to make clear to regional leaders that the 25-nation EU remains committed to promoting peace in the region. The EU is participating in the 7,000-strong mostly European UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon.
Solana's first stop will be in Jerusalem, where he will meet Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and other top political figures including Israel Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman.
Reviving serious talks between the two sides will be a challenge. One former EU Mideast envoy, Miguel Angel Moratinos, suggested Tuesday that the international community's main blueprint for resolving the conflict, the road map, was fatally stalled.
Moratinos, now Spain's foreign minister, told a parliamentary panel in Madrid that a new approach was needed and that any new negotiations should include Syria and take into account the Iranian nuclear dispute.
The EU envoy is also expected to visit Ramallah in the West Bank and meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
The EU refuses to talk with government officials of Hamas because of its refusal to recognize Israel, end violence and accept Israel as a peace partner. The group is on the EU's list of terrorist organizations.
Direct international aid to the Palestinian Authority has been suspended since Hamas took power after its January election victory.
Solana is expected to press Abbas to continue efforts to get Hamas to moderate and to form a unity government with his Fatah party, an effort that has so far been fruitless.
The EU foreign policy chief will also head to Beirut to visit Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, to Amman, Jordan, to meet King Abdullah II and to Cairo to visit with President Hosni Mubarak.