European Union foreign ministers on Thursday discussed a five-point plan to revive the Middle East peace process first put forward by Spain, France and Italy in mid-November.
The plan breaks no new ground but underscores a European wish to maintain the momentum for peace even as a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians hangs in the balance, and an insurgency rages on in Iraq.
The plan has five components: an immediate ceasefire; formation of a Palestinian unity government acceptable to the international community; an exchange of prisoners — including the Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping sparked a 34-day war between Israel and Hizbullah earlier this year; talks between Israel's prime minister and the Palestinian president, and an international mission in Gaza to monitor a ceasefire.
The 25 foreign ministers reaffirmed the initiative Thursday and leaders from the 25 EU nations will formally endorse it Friday.
Diplomats said the leaders' statement nudges Syria into doing more for peace and urges Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to keep up his efforts to form a government of national unity.
"We continue, of course, to support him and also his efforts to form a government of national unity," said Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja of Finland, which holds the rotating EU presidency.
Tuomioja said once such a government is formed, "then we will immediately engage with it."
The peace plan that Spain, France and Italy proposed does not explicitly demand that Hamas recognize Israel's right to exist — a key sticking point blocking the resumption of Western aid to the impoverished Palestinians.
Abbas has been trying to persuade Hamas to join his more moderate Fatah party in a coalition government in hopes of lifting the sanctions. But talks broke down late last month. Tensions further heightened after Abbas threatened to call new elections, drawing charges from Hamas he is plotting a coup.
On Iran, the UN Security Council currently is discussing a resolution that would impose sanctions on Tehran for refusing to halt uranium enrichment.
"What has been consistently the picture, pretty well all year, is that the international community has shown a great unity of purpose and a great unity of concern and anxiety over this issue," British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told reporters.
"That remains the case, and one of the best ways of demonstrating that would be by having a further unified Security Council resolution."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair is to visit the Middle East in the weeks ahead.
"We as the EU ... are substantial funders of aid and support to the Palestinian people, but in the end aid from outside is not the answer, the answer is to move to a more peaceful settlement in the Middle East so natural and normal economic development can take place," Beckett said.The European Union on Thursday embraced a Middle East peace initiative that urges Syria to play a constructive role in the region and hints to Iran of impending international sanctions over its nuclear program.
Meanwhile, the European Union on Thursday embraced a Middle East peace initiative that urges Syria to play a constructive role in the region and hints to Iran of impending international sanctions over its nuclear program.
It also condemned a move by Hamas to seize a key EU-monitored border crossing Thursday between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.
"We deplore the events that have taken place in Rafah," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told reporters at an EU summit. He said the EU was relieved Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh failed to smuggle in tens of millions of dollars of aid from Egypt and that EU monitors were able to escape unharmed.
Haniyeh made his way back to Gaza after a gunbattle between Hamas and rival Fatah left more than two dozen people wounded. Officials said Haniyeh was unharmed.