Aware that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is under intense domestic pressure following the war in Lebanon, the EU will not - at least for the time being - press Israel to come out with a new diplomatic initiative, Middle East envoy Marc Otte has told The Jerusalem Post.
Dangling the diplomacy bait
"The Olmert government needs a bit of breathing space for internal debate following the war," Otte said. "We respect that need."
Otte's comments dovetail with other comments made recently by senior EU officials to the effect that the EU was not interested in pressuring Olmert to take steps toward the Palestinians that might make his political situation, already precarious, even more difficult.
One official said the EU was not interested in doing anything that might bring a right-wing government to power.
Otte said he was unaware of the new ideas that Olmert, after meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair last week, said were being discussed to move the diplomatic process with the Palestinians forward. He also said he was unaware of any "extraordinarily bold" initiative about to be launched.
Otte's comments came amid a growing sense in Jerusalem of the need to come out with a diplomatic initiative to fend off other initiatives being worked on, including the Arab League's "Beirut plus" plan, slated to come before the UN this month, and an idea for an international conference that has received Russian backing.
The sense of a need for something new also flows from Olmert's recent comments that his realignment plan has been shelved, and a feeling that something is needed to take its place.
Otte also reiterated that the EU would not alter its policies toward the Palestinian Authority on the basis of the announcement of a Hamas-Fatah national unity government.
The EU foreign ministers, who met in Brussels on Friday and discussed the issue, released a statement welcoming the announcement of a Palestinian agreement to form a unity government, but stopped short of saying that this alone would change the EU's position toward the PA.
According to a statement issued after the meeting, the foreign ministers "expressed the hope" that the PA government's "political platform will reflect the Quartet principles and allow for early engagement. The council welcomes the prospect of a meeting between PM Olmert and President Abbas in the near future with a view to re-launching negotiations."
Otte indicated that the EU had no intention of softening the Quartet's benchmarks for granting the PA international legitimacy and aid: renouncing violence, recognizing Israel's right to exist, and accepting previous agreements.
The Quartet is scheduled to meet in New York on Wednesday, and a statement put out by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the meeting would discuss the proposed PA unity government and "possible ways to provide humanitarian assistance to the occupied territory."
Otte, however, said it would be unwise to break ranks with the US on the issue. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said the US expected the PA to live up to the three conditions before it could be considered "a legitimate partner."
"It is in our interest to maintain the unity of the Quartet," Otte said. He added that the PA's financial problems would not be solved by Europe alone, and that it would also be necessary for the US to lift sanctions against banks doing business with the PA, and for Israel to release the PA tax and tariff revenues it is withholding.
Otte denied in the interview reports attributed to Palestinian officials that the EU had informed the PA it would renew aid once the unity government was set up.
"We are not hostile to what is happening, but we need to see more details," he said.
"We know very little about the national unity agreement, because the document is not public," Otte said, adding that without the text of the Hamas-Fatah agreement it would be difficult to make an informed judgment on what changes were being made.
"We need to see more," he said. "There is no need to make a decision at this point. We need more specific information. In the meantime we continue to help the Palestinian population through the mechanism we have set up."
That mechanism, set up over the summer, funnels money for humanitarian needs to the territories through a World Bank-led program that bypasses the Hamas-led PA government, meaning that the funds are not used to pay PA salaries.
The EU foreign ministers agreed to extend the program by another three months. Since July, the EU has given the Palestinians $114.5 million for hospital supplies, fuel to run power generators and "social allowances" to 625,000 Palestinians and public service workers. Various EU countries have also contributed another $77m., and another $15.3m. has gone to support Abbas's office.
Otte said that the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit was a prerequisite for any dramatic changes in the situation, adding that both PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas understood this.
He also said that international attitudes toward the PA would begin to change only if the level of violence went down following a declaration forswearing terrorism.
Regarding Lebanon, Otte said he expected the international force to be fully deployed there within three months.
He characterized the initial period of the cease-fire, now a month old, as "a good beginning."
"So far it is okay. There is a spirit of understanding and cooperation with the IDF, UNIFIL and the Lebanese army," he said. "So far, the balance is positive."
He said that different options were still being examined to enforce the weapons embargo along the Syrian-Lebanese border. While Israel would like to see international forces at the border crossings, Syria has so far nixed the idea, and Lebanon has not forced the issue.
"There are many ways to oversee or survey a border," Otte said. "The ideas are being developed. The Lebanese army has the essential role, but they will get assistance - perhaps in capacity building or monitoring - in some way. There are ways to do it, everybody is aware of the importance of this issue."