(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom announced Saturday that he is not going to the two-day summit of European and Mediterranean nations that opens in Barcelona on Sunday. In his place, Finance Minister Ehud Olmert is heading the Israeli delegation.
A spokesman for Shalom said the foreign minister's sudden decision was not a reaction to the draft EU report slamming Israel on its actions in east Jerusalem, but based on recent events here in Israel.
Initially, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was expected to head the delegation but then he also decided not to go, since he needs to focus on politics in Israel in light of the upcoming elections.
The summit brings together the 25 EU leaders and those from Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey. This meeting in Barcelona marks the 10th anniversary of the partnership.
On Saturday, as officials were finalizing three summit statements, diplomats reported a growing list of no-shows.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also planned to stay away, with EU diplomats blaming his absence on the violence in Saturday's parliamentary runoff elections in Egypt. Others who would not attend included the leaders of Lebanon, Morocco and Jordan.
Syrian President Bashar Assad had already been barred for allegedly being behind the February 14 murder of ex-Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in a Beirut truck bombing that killed 20 other people.
At the meeting, Europe is expected to push for improved relations by linking billions of euros in economic aid to sweeping democratic and other reforms on the Mediterranean's southern and eastern rims, including for Israelis and Palestinians.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has weighed heavily on relations across the region and has long hampered the full development of the partnership between the EU and Mediterranean countries.
Also - unlike in its work in eastern Europe - the bloc cannot offer the prospect of eventual EU membership to lure north African and Middle Eastern countries into far-reaching economic and political reform.
The initial strategy was to encourage economic development, believing that political changes would automatically follow. This year however, the EU is trying to force through political reform even before all of its economic aid and trade initiatives have started to bear fruit.
The summit starts two days after the opening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, marking the first time Palestinians will be in charge of an international border.
The European leaders - including German Chancellor Angela Merkel making her debut appearance at an international gathering - will likely use the opening of the Rafah border crossing to urge Israel and the Palestinians to stay the course toward a peaceful settlement of their conflict.
The Euro-Mediterranean leaders were to reaffirm their "determination to achieve a lasting and comprehensive settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict," according to a draft summit statement seen by The Associated Press.
The Europeans look to their southern neighbors to jointly denounce terrorism and distance Islam from the notion that their religion condones the mindless, large-scale murder of innocent people.
The EU is eager to put its relations with Israel and its Arab neighbors on a new footing, linking EU economic and other aid to democratic and across the board other reforms in the Mediterranean basin.
Its goal - first set out in 1995 - remains to help Israel and its neighbors make the Middle East a region of "peace, stability and prosperity" on the back of a Euro-Mediterranean free trade zone by 2010.
On the summit's eve, the global anti-poverty organization Oxfam cautioned Europe against seeking rapid free trade in agriculture. In a report it said 68 million people in the Middle East and North Africa survive "on less than $2 a day, compared with 50 million people in 1990. The EU should ... speed up its rural development projects" across the region to help farmers capitalize on trading opportunities.
The past decade saw the rise of Islamic terrorism, the start of a war in Iraq and some Arab nations failing to enact democratic and economic reforms, leaving the vision of a peaceful, prosperous Middle East in shambles, despite $23.6 billion in grants and soft loans, mostly for Israel's Arab neighbors.
Europe wants Arab nations to do more to protect human rights by launching good governance and sensible free-market economic policies. If they do, the EU will open its market to their goods and services, and will provide economic and other aid in a broad range of areas such as trade, immigration, justice, transport, energy, environment and education.
The EU now spends $3.5 billion a year in grants and soft loans on its southern neighbors.
Yet, says Javier Solana, the EU security affairs chief, the region has become "a crossroads of all the perils of the modern world," including poverty, terrorism, undemocratic governments, uncontrolled migrations, disproportionate population growth, a proliferation of weapons and little trade among nations in the region.