EU official sees hope for ME peace

PR chief sees 'momentum' stemming from Saudi plan, PA unity government.

Olmert Abbas 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Olmert Abbas 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
There is "new momentum" in the Middle East peace process, a high-ranking European Union official said after meeting the UN secretary-general. EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner pointed to the recent Arab League peace initiative, the formation of a Palestinian national unity government including Hamas and Fatah, and regular meetings between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. "I think the recent developments ... have brought indeed a new momentum to this peace process," she said Friday. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Ferrero-Waldner discussed these developments and the next meeting of the Quartet, the international group comprising the UN, the US, the EU and Russia that produced the stalled roadmap to Israeli-Palestinian peace culminating with statehood for the Palestinians. Last month, the Arab League relaunched a proposal based on a long-dormant 2002 Saudi plan offering peace with Israel in exchange for a full withdrawal from lands captured in the Six Day War. Olmert has hailed the plan as a "revolutionary change" but has also expressed reservations. Ferrero-Waldner told reporters that she and Ban "both welcome the national unity government as indeed an important step towards Palestinian unity, and we are committed to supporting it." But she stressed that the EU will only support those in the new Palestinian government who accept the Quartet's principles - Israel's right to exist, previous agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization, and renunciation of terror and violence. For the first time on Wednesday, Ferrero-Waldner said she and other EU officials met with a member of the Palestinian government who supports the Quartet principles, Finance Minister Salam Fayyad. "I have agreed with him that we will open up towards technical assistance in order to get the Ministry of Finance into the right conditions to receive donor funds in the future ... although we know that this might take some time," she said. Fayyad told reporters after Wednesday's meeting in Brussels that the new Palestinian government will need euro1 billion (US$1.33 billion) in international aid this year to "get back on our feet." Ferrero-Waldner said Fayyad has asked the international community to help, not just the EU. "That means the Arabs who have pledged a lot but not yet implemented their pledges, whereas we always implement our pledges," she said. "Second is he, of course, hopes to get money held back by the Israelis, which is also approximately US$700 million." That money from tax rebates has been withheld by Israel. Since the Palestinian Authority elections won by Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel, the EU has bypassed the government and paid hundreds of millions of euros (dollars) in social assistance through the so-called Temporary International Mechanism (TIM). Ferrero-Waldner said the system - which currently provides assistance to roughly a quarter of the Palestinian population - had been extended for another three months. Olmert and Abbas agreed to hold biweekly meetings at the prodding of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the first will take place Sunday, and will include a general discussion of a future Palestinian state, Palestinian and Israeli officials said Friday. The Quartet has been seeking a way to re-establish contacts with the new Palestinian government. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said in late March that the Quartet hopes to meet with Israel before the summer for the first time. It also wants to engage in talks with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, he said. Ferrero-Waldner said the Quartet will "most probably" meet in Egypt in early May, which may provide that opportunity. She gave no details, but Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari announced last week that a ministerial conference on Iraq will be held May 3-4 in the Egyptian Red Sea Resort of Sharm el-Sheik. Zebari said it will include ministers from Iraq's neighboring countries, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and several other industrialized nations.