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EU fails to calm Arab anger over Mideast stance

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, right, speaks on Thursday with Palestinian delegates Samih El Abed and Basel Jaber during the Euro-Mediterranean conference in Marseille, France  

MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) -- The European Union failed Thursday to placate Arab anger over its response to the Israeli killing of Palestinians in the violence gripping the Middle East.

EU president France, in a statement on the conflict at the end of an impassioned two-day meeting of EU and Mediterranean states, appeared to harden Europe's support for an independent Palestinian state.

It said EU countries wanted to see such a state established "in the near future and preferably by negotiation" with Israel.

The wording went beyond a landmark declaration made in Berlin in March 1999 which said the EU "declares its readiness to consider the recognition of a Palestinian state in due course."

Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath, speaking for Arab states in the 27-nation Euromed forum, welcomed the change.

But Shaath and other Arab ministers chastised Europe for failing to condemn Israel's use of military force in response to a Palestinian uprising against its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Shaath said Europe had espoused a "pernicious doctrine of neutrality" that established a moral equivalence between "the victim and the victimizer, between the occupier and the occupied."

Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa said Arab countries wanted Europe to play a more assertive role in the Middle East peace process.

"It has been our policy all along that Europe should be a full partner in the peace process, but that doesn't mean raising the flag and smiling," he said.

He said the French statement overall did not reflect Arab views and implied that it had been toned down to please Israel, whose foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami took part in the meeting.

"I want you to know that the vast majority was on one side and the minority, perhaps a minority of one, was on the other side," Moussa said.

Syria and Lebanon boycotted the two-day ministerial meeting in the French port of Marseille over Israel's participation and what they saw as the EU's vague position.

French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine denied the EU was sitting on the fence, but he said grandstanding public statements would not help the 15-nation bloc in its quest to "be useful" to the peace process.

"In reality, the European Union is gaining influence, slowly but surely," he said.

Israel has traditionally seen Europe as pro-Palestinian and has preferred the United States, its chief ally, to keep its pre-eminent role as peace broker.

Ben-Ami said the EU was doing its best to develop "a reasonable and equitable position," but that even European nations themselves said they accepted "American centrality and leadership" in the process.

The Marseille meeting was designed to discuss EU economic support for poorer Mediterranean states under a partnership process launched five years ago amid the optimism generated by the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo interim peace accords.

The foreign ministers agreed new procedures to streamline access to new European aid worth 5.35 billion euros ($4.6 billion) to Mediterranean countries over the period 2000 to 2006. Vedrine said the fact the meeting took place at all was a success.

It was dominated throughout by the gloom of the Middle East conflict and Arab frustration over the EU's failure to match its economic backing for the peace process with political clout.

EU ministers said they could not replace the United States and throw their weight behind just one party to the conflict.

"Obviously to play a role you have to be accepted by both parties. For the moment, the invitation has come from one side and not the other," Italy's Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini said.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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