EU troika upbeat on Mid-East peace

The European Union's mission to the Middle East departed yesterday with brave declarations of faith in the Arab-Israeli "peace process" and dire warnings of "catastrophe" if it fails. But even among Western diplomats attending the mission's last press conference in Beirut, there was private disagreement over the assertion by Alain Jupp , the French Foreign Minister and leader of the Franco-German-Spanish troika, that the "peace process" was "irreversible". Repeatedly, Mr Jupp told the Israeli, Syrian and Lebanese leaders that there was "no alternative" to the new agreements.

The EU intends to increase its own involvement in the Middle East with a conference in Barcelona in November for Mediterranean and European nations at which Israelis, Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptians and Maghreb countries - including Algeria - would be invited. The Palestinians and Israelis seem keen to attend although the Syrians significantly responded by saying that they needed time to think about the invitation. Syria's $2.7bn ($1.78bn) debt to Europe - $180m of which is owed to France - was also discussed in Damascus, where Mr Jupp concluded that he found "no negative tone" in the Syrian position.

Asked why his own view was at variance with the increasingly gloomy atmosphere inside the Middle East, Mr Jupp said that there were "differences between the passionate reaction to the bomb and the will of the political leaders to continue with the process ... of course, the Palestinians didn't hide from us the seriousness of the situation. But they considered that this process is without any alternative except catastrophe."

In Damascus, Mr Jupp has made it clear that the purpose of his mission was to help "keep alive" this peace process.

The problem, as several European diplomats pointed out here yesterday, is that neither the European Union nor the United Nations - whose resolutions on Israeli withdrawals Mr Jupp publicly supported - have any role in the peace agreements concluded by Middle East leaders.

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