- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2001

BRUSSELS — The European Union is preparing to strip Israel of privileged trade access as a punishment for the use of "excessive force" against the Palestinians.
EU diplomats said yesterday it was almost certain that the 15 EU foreign ministers would agree to punitive action at a meeting on May 21, when they would clamp down on Israels long-standing abuse of Europes "Rules of Origin" system.
This means Israel no longer will be permitted to export duty-free goods made at Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza as if they were Israeli products.
EU sources said the Israeli ambassador in Brussels requested an urgent meeting with Chris Patten, the European external affairs commissioner, in the hope of heading off a rift. If relations continue to deteriorate, it ultimately could lead to the suspension of the EUs Association Agreement with Israel, though member states have shown no support yet for this "nuclear option."
The EU signaled its tough new line last week by condemning Israels 24-hour incursion into the Gaza Strip and its attacks on targets in Lebanon as "excessive and disproportionate."
Israel had been counting on the traditional influence of Germany and Britain to head off calls by a French-led bloc for punitive measures, but the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appears to have misjudged the level of dismay in EU capitals over the Israeli military incursion into zones considered sacrosanct under the Oslo Accords.
Diplomats in Brussels say Israels leadership has been slow to recognize the EUs transformation from a trading bloc to an aspiring superpower. The Amsterdam Treaty, which came into force in 1999, created an embryonic EU foreign and defense ministry under the control of a "high representative," Javier Solana.
At the same time, Mr. Patten is turning the EUs aid budget, the biggest in the world, into the spearhead of a foreign global policy. The Middle East is a prime target for a demonstration of growing EU influence.
Brussels is the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority, spending $158 million a year. A further $562 million is spent annually bolstering peace moves in the four neighboring states.
In Jerusalem, Israeli officials said any punitive action by the EU would be counterproductive if the bloc really wants to play a significant role in Middle East peacemaking.
It would only reinforce the perception among Israelis of bias against them, the officials said.

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