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Eu softens stance against bush sharon agreement { April 18 2004 }

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EU pulls back from confronting US over Gaza
By Judy Dempsey in Tullamore, Ireland
Published: April 18 2004 21:23 | Last Updated: April 18 2004 21:23

European Union foreign ministers have pulled back from an all-out confrontation with the US over President George W. Bush's support for Israel's unilateral "disengagement" plan from the Gaza Strip.

The decision to soften their opposition was made hours before the assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantissi, ordered by Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, and sharply condemned by the Europeans.

The shift came after an intense debate by EU foreign ministers at an informal meeting in Tullamore, with Jack Straw, British foreign secretary, taking the lead in supporting the US-backed plan.

Belgium, however, accused the EU of "collective blindness" for accepting Washington's endorsement of a change of Israel's 1967 borders without negotiating with the Palestinians.

Louis Michel, Belgian foreign minister, said the EU was engaged in "collective self-denial", while Michel Barnier, France's new foreign minister, said the Palestinians had been humiliated.

But Joschka Fischer, German foreign minister, backed by Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, pushed the EU towards a pragmatic approach rather than risk another transatlantic row over the Middle East.

They argued that the EU faced the choice of trying to influence how Israel would withdraw from Gaza and particularly how to help the Palestinians take control over it, or risk losing long-term influence in the region.

They also made it plain that if the EU Europeans rejected the Gaza plan, it could jeopardise the Middle East road map - drawn up 18 months ago by a "quartet" consisting of the US, EU, United Nations and Russia - that envisages creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state by 2006.

Mr Solana said he would meet the quartet leaders - Colin Powell, US secretary of state, Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general, and Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister - in early May and not on April 28 as first mooted.

Brian Cowen, foreign minister of Ireland, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, said in a final statement agreed by all ministers that Mr Solana would start working with the Palestinians, Israel and the Egyptians over how to carry out the disengagement. The statement said: "The proposed withdrawal should be properly orchestrated with the international community so as to ensure an orderly situation in Gaza, which will permit the maintenance of security as well as rehabilitation and reconstruction."

Chris Patten, the EU's external affairs commissioner, warned, however, that the EU was not prepared to finance for a second time projects such as Gaza airport and sea port unless Israel gave assurances it would not bomb them again.

Several foreign ministers, notably Ben Bot of the Netherlands and Mr Fischer, criticised the Palestinians bitterly for failing to come up with any strategy for governing Gaza.

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