US warns Europe on Middle East meddling

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The Independent Online
In a letter which has both angered and astonished the European Union, Warren Christopher, the United States Secretary of State, has warned all 15 EU foreign ministers not to meddle in the US-led Middle East "peace process".

Despite the fact that the "process", in the eyes of many EU ministers, is being destroyed by the refusal of Israel's right-wing government to honour the Oslo accords - and by Washington's failure to hold Israel to its signed agreements - Mr Christopher insisted that European nations should "refrain" from any act which might endanger the Middle East peace at what he called a "delicate moment".

The letter was sent individually to governments after the Dublin summit earlier this month when European leaders decided to dispatch the Irish Foreign Minister, Dick Spring, to Israel and the occupied territories for urgent talks with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat. He was followed this week by President Jacques Chirac, who has repeatedly emphasised France's desire to see a Palestinian state and the completion of a Middle East settlement based on land for peace, the formula agreed at the 1991 Madrid conference.

The French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, has sent a diplomatic reply to Mr Christopher - saying that France would never do anything to harm the peace process - but in Damascus on Saturday, Mr Chirac pointedly referred to "the explosive potential of poorly managed international situations", adding that it was "time for Europe to co-sponsor this process".

The "poor management", it seemed clear, referred to Mr Christopher's lamentable stewardship of the "peace process".

No sooner had Mr Chirac landed in Israel yesterday than David Bar-Ilan, Mr Netanyahu's spokesman, rejected the French proposal. Mr Bar-Ilan said that "Europe and particularly France have taken such a one-sided

pro-Arab position that it would be foolhardy to consider" an enlarged European role.

EU governments appreciate that President Bill Clinton cannot bring pressure on Israel in advance of the US elections but fear that the Clinton administration - the most pro-Israeli in a generation - may prove equally weak in confronting Mr Netanyahu afterwards.

One senior EU official said here at the weekend: "If things don't change quickly, there's going to be a real explosion in the occupied territories, worse than the one which cost 75 lives last month. We have to tell Netanyahu that. The peace process is not dead but it is in a very, very serious state."

As if to reinforce his words, President Hafez al-Assad of Syria sounded bleaker than ever before in his own assessment. "The present position taken by the Israeli government," he said, "amounts to a total refusal [to accept] the foundations of the peace that have already been agreed; it is a total abolition of the peace process."

t Palestinian negotiators walked out of talks in Jerusalem last night although US officials said there was no crisis and that the sides agreed to continue the negotiations. The negotiators had gone to Bethlehem to report to Yasser Arafat. This development added to confusion earlier when the US mediator Dennis Ross said he was returning home because there had been enough progress.

id only minute details remained unresolved and accused the Palestinians of playing for time. The Palestinians blamed Israel for reneging on agreements.

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