EU seeks truce – and a bigger role

LONDON — Spurred on by France, Europe is seeking to fill the diplomatic vacuum in the Middle East left by the outgoing U.S. administration, sending two missions to try to broker a cease-fire in Gaza and offering more humanitarian aid.

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In a statement markedly more critical of the Israeli ground offensive than comments from Washington, the European Union said that even Israel’s undisputable right to defend itself did not «allow actions which largely affect civilians.»

France described the Israeli action as a «dangerous military escalation,» while also condemning the continuing rocket bombardment of Israeli targets from Gaza. A senior British diplomat said London was «bewildered» by Israel’s strategy.

Across the Continent, officials said that the region – and the world – could not wait for the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama on Jan. 20.

«Europe has to play a bigger role in the Middle East, and we believe we can,» said Eric Chevallier, a special adviser to Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister. «We are eager to work with the United States, especially the new administration, but we cannot wait.»

Despite the large sums of money spent in aid to the Palestinian Authority, the EU has had little to show for its years of efforts to help bring peace to the Middle East, where the United States is seen as the most important international power broker.

European efforts to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians have also been impeded by divisions within the 27-nation bloc between those more openly critical of Israel, and others – including Britain, Germany and some East European nations – which align themselves more closely with U.S. policy.

On Sunday, Karl Schwarzenberg, the foreign minister of the Czech Republic, which took over the EU’s rotating presidency from France on Jan. 1., led a EU delegation to the region that included Kouchner.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, whose energetic brand of diplomacy galvanized the EU during the second half of 2008, will leave Monday on a separate visit. On his characteristically packed schedule are meetings with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas – but also talks with the Syrian and Lebanese leaders.

Sarkozy’s high-profile mediation efforts in the Caucasus helped produce a cease-fire in August after Russia’s military incursion into Georgia.

This time France is again calling for a cease-fire, followed by a «sustainable truce.» One idea circulating in Paris and at the United Nations in New York on Sunday was to send EU troops as part of an international force to the Gaza border to help prevent smuggling of munitions across the frontier, diplomats said.

Britain, like France a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, appeared to favor a similar approach. In London, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said any solution would have to include stopping the flow of arms into the region and ensuring international monitoring. Brown told the BBC that Arab powers had to apply pressure to ensure that illegal tunnels used for supplying Gaza with arms were sealed. A senior British diplomat said London backed Sarkozy’s activism.

EU officials said that the absence of any U.S mission to the region gave Europeans the responsibility of leading efforts to achieve a cease-fire.

«Europe needs to act,» said Jan Sliva, a spokesman for the Czech presidency of the EU. «The region cannot be left abandoned until Jan. 20 when the new U.S president is inaugurated.»

Cristina Gallach, a spokeswoman for the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said that the European initiative was part of a policy of engagement dating from 2000. «If you have a European delegation,» Gallach said, «and you don’t have a U.S. delegation, then the EU will be more visible.»

«But it has to be clear that this effort is because the region is part of our neighborhood,» she added. «In terms of proximity we are more affected.»

But tensions within European policy-making were already visible over the weekend. On Saturday Mirek Topolanek, the Czech prime minister, described the Israeli action as more «defensive than offensive,» though that comment was qualified on Sunday. In a statement the Czech presidency apologized for the «misunderstanding» caused by suggestions that the Israeli action was one of self-defense.

Officials also conceded that they had few effective means to pressure Israel to curb its military actions. One dismissed the notion of threatening the withdrawal of preferential trade arrangements with Israel, saying that when people were being killed, stopping «a few crates of oranges» would not influence anybody.

The European Commission promised 3 million euros in aid, or about $4.2 million, to respond to the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza, saying the money would be used as soon as possible to provide food, emergency shelter and medical supplies. The EU has appealed for Israel to ease access to Gaza for humanitarian relief.

Across Europe, criticism of Israel has been vocal. In London, at least 10,000 people marched to a rally Saturday in Trafalgar Square. Outside the prime minister’s residence, protesters threw shoes at the gates, echoing the Iraqi journalist who confronted President George W Bush. Protests also took place in France, Italy, Germany and Turkey.

Brown appealed for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and told the BBC that the ground offensive marked «a very dangerous moment.»

Sarkozy’s visit is an extension of a pre-planned trip to Syria and Lebanon. French diplomats hope that his policy of rapprochement with Israel, departing from the more pro-Palestinian approach of his predecessors, will give him greater leverage with Tel Aviv. While ending Syria’s diplomatic isolation and speaking out in favor of a Palestinian state, Sarkozy, who has Jewish roots, has repeatedly called himself a friend of Israel.

However, there is no certainty that this balancing act will pay off. As the center-right newspaper Le Figaro put it in its weekend edition, Sarkozy’s efforts risk being «heard but not listened to.»

Sarkozy’s involvement could also provoke tensions with the Czech Republic, which is sensitive to suggestions that Paris will continue to play a big role in EU policy-making after its successful six-month presidency.

(Katrin Bennhold reported from Paris.)

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