Europe has meagre offerings for Arafat

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Might the Europeans now step forward to save the Oslo accords? Might the Europeans, at last, seize the initiative from fumbling Washington, and attempt to steer the Middle East back on to the path of reason?

Last night Yasser Arafat flew into Luxembourg to find out. In a surprise move, the European foreign ministers invited him for emergency talks on the eve of the proposed Middle East summit in Washington.

For Mr Arafat the purpose of the meeting was clear. Both the Europeans and the US are "brokers" in the peace process. Brokers are expected to use influence to ensure the peace-making parties keep to their agreement. Since the eruption of violence last week, it must now be clearer than ever to Mr Arafat that the US can no longer be deemed an "honest broker".

Israel's breaches of both the spirit and word of the Oslo accords are plain for all to see, yet Bill Clinton shows no sign of willingness to pressure Mr Netanyahu. In the run-up to the presidential election, Mr Clinton is unlikely to change his tune. Mr Arafat came to Luxembourg, therefore, to try to persuade the Europeans to do what Mr Clinton refuses to do - to stand up to the Israeli Prime Minister.

The Europeans have potentially a large degree of influence over the Israeli government and there are many levers the EU could pull, should they so wish. For the EU, the benefits of active intervention in the Middle East peace process might seem self-evident, with stability on Europe's Mediterranean ring of paramount importance. The EU last year signed a far-reaching trade association deal with Israel, offering wide access to EU markets and EU funding for research and development. Israel greatly values its image in Europe and Europe is its biggest trading partner. Under the previous Labour government of Yitzak Rabin, Israeli officials spoke in starry-eyed terms of Israel's future as "European" rather than Middle Eastern.

Many in the Labour foreign ministry even spoke of the day when Israel might join the EU. While the Likud government may be less enamoured of its European neighbours, even Mr Netanyahu understands the enormous value of Israel's ties with the Europeans. Despite such influence, European political leaders rarely speak on matters concerning Israel without consulting Washington. For the Europeans, even the purpose of last night's meeting with Mr Arafat was unclear.

At first, it appeared that the EU invitation was issued to Mr Arafat largely out of pique, because no European leader had been invited to Washington.

The so-called "troika" of European foreign ministers, Lamberto Dini of Italy, Dick Spring of Ireland and Hans van Mierlo of the Netherlands, appeared to have nothing of substance to offer Mr Arafat other than the familiar incantations of support for the peace process. Given the difficulties that the 15 always have in reaching agreement on sensitive questions of diplomacy, it has often been easier for the EU to pass the Middle East buck to the US. Occasionally, the Europeans have tried to take a clear political stance, but usually the member states end up squabbling. For example, the troika is currently debating whether to visit the Palestinian leadership in Orient House, in Arab East Jerusalem next month. Orient House is the symbolic Palestinian "government" building in which Israel is trying to close down.

The European's have, throughout the peace process, tried to salve their consciences over the Middle East by digging deep into their pockets rather than raising their heads above the political parapet. The Europeans are the biggest aid donors to the Palestinians. In 1993 the EU promised 50 million Ecu to the Palestinian authority each year for four years. It was the Europeans who largely financed and arranged the Palestinian elections last year.

The best Mr Arafat can hope for from the European "brokers" is probably statements of good intent and further promises of aid. On Tuesday, EU foreign ministers will agree a mandate for a trade and co-operation agreement with the Palestinians. Such a deal, however, falls well short of what Mr Arafat came to ask for. He needs the Europeans to use their muscle to force Mr Netanyahu to move, and soon.