EU defuses tension with US over Mideast
The European Union tried to defuse tension with Washington over the Middle East on Saturday, saying Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip could be a "significant step" on the road to peace.
"The European Union welcomes the prospect of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip," the statement said. "...such a withdrawal could represent a significant step toward the implementation of the 'road map', provided that it is carried out in accordance with certain conditions."
The road map is a plan endorsed by the Middle East Quartet of the United States, the EU, the United Nations and Russia.
The EU statement looked like a bid to pour balm on EU-U.S. relations, which had threatened to deteriorate further in the light of Wednesday's U.S.-Israeli announcement.
Initially there was widespread dismay in European capitals at Bush's backing for the Israeli plan to keep settlements in the West Bank. French President Jacques Chirac branded Bush's stand an "unfortunate and dangerous precedent."
But on Saturday the EU, while restating its previous positions on the Middle East, made no mention of any disagreement with Washington.
But some EU ministers insisted they would not allow Washington to dictate terms.
"Peace and stability will only be achieved if the Europeans are respected as partners," French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said, pointing out that quartets are made up of four parties, not one.
His German counterpart, Joschka Fischer, said the Americans would "take note of the European position with great interest."
Some ministers suggested Bush had sent mixed messages during his White House news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon but had since clarified his position, adopting a more conciliatory tone.
"It has been corrected by Bush, explaining that obviously the result of the process cannot be achieved in any other way than through negotiations between the two parties...," Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds told reporters. EU Commissioner Chris Patten also said the Americans appeared to have shifted ground.
"(Bush) is still committed to the road map and he still recognizes that there can only be peace -- long-term sustainable peace -- if there is a negotiated settlement," Patten said. "Now that's not entirely what was coming out from Washington earlier in the week."
Earlier in the day, Patten said U.S. backing for the Israeli plan had caused "an awful lot of damage" that the European Union would have to help repair.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the Quartet would meet in early May to discuss how to move the peace process forward. Officials said the meeting would probably be on May 4 in New York and not in Berlin on April 28 as had been mooted.
Under Sharon's plan, the Israelis will withdraw from Gaza but will hold onto some land in the West Bank, infuriating Palestinians and Arabs. Sharon has said the plan is unilateral and not subject to bargaining with the Palestinians.