- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2002

CACERES, Spain Breaking ranks with the United States, foreign ministers from the European Union backed the outline of a new Mideast peace plan yesterday calling for Palestinian elections and the creation of a Palestinian state to be immediately recognized by Israel and admitted to the United Nations.
Creation of a Palestinian state must be the "starting point of a negotiating process," French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said as he presented a blueprint of the plan, drawn up by France, to his 14 EU colleagues.
Neither Israel nor the Palestinians immediately responded to the plan, though it contained a number of steps the Israelis have rejected.
The plan won broad support, with none of the ministers expressing any criticism. Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, the meeting's chairman, said it would be developed further in another foreign ministers meeting on Feb. 18 and a mid-March European summit in Barcelona.
The Europeans have in the past come out in favor of a Palestinian state. But the detailed plan would be a new step though it would be unlikely to make headway with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has insisted on complete calm in the region before restarting parleys on a Mideast settlement. Talks broke down after violence erupted in September 2000.
The plan also puts the European Union at odds with Washington, the main mediator in the Middle East. The United States and the European Union had been taking a relatively unified position in recent months. The Europeans, who are seen as tilting toward the Palestinians, had also taken an increasingly tough stance with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, calling on him to rein in militants.
But now EU officials are expressing impatience with Washington's hands-off attitude toward peace talks and what many see as its pro-Israel bent.
The United States has scaled back its involvement in the region, putting peace efforts on hold, after an envoy failed to work out a cease-fire late last year. The Bush administration has strongly criticized Mr. Arafat, saying he has failed to crack down on anti-Israel militants.
The differences broke the surface at a time of other trans-Atlantic frictions over trade, environmental issues and foreign policy.
Yesterday, EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten said the United States appeared to be taking a simplistic approach with regard to the rest of the world. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, he said branding Iraq, Iran and North Korea an "axis of evil" as President Bush had done in his State of the Union speech on Jan. 29 was "deeply unhelpful."
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer agreed. "We need to fight against terrorism with determination," he told reporters here. "But we must also look at the social and economic roots of that problem."
Mr. Pique said the Europeans reject Israel's stance that no peace talks can start until a lasting cease-fire takes hold a position Washington has generally supported.
He said the fixation on security matters at the expense of political initiatives has created an impasse.
"There does not seem to be a way out of the deadlock," he said at a news conference after the two-day meeting of the foreign ministers. "We need to find a way to get out of this endless spiral of violence."
"We need to have a new political initiative" to restart Mideast peace talks, Mr. Fischer said.
Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign and security chief, said there can be no peace in the Middle East without putting "politics back at the center of gravity."
Mr. Vedrine spelled out the following sequence of events without detailing a timeline:
Palestinian elections "to support the Palestinian Authority's popular legitimacy in its efforts to crack down" on extremists. These could be general elections or a vote for a legislative council that would prepare for presidential elections once a Palestinian state has been proclaimed.
For the elections, Israeli troops in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would withdraw to the positions they held before September 2000 and lift travel restrictions. Israel would recognize the new Palestinian state, which would also immediately be made a U.N. member. The plan did not address the issue of the state's borders.

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