Europe moves to underline its support for Israeli premier

Series Title
Series Details 09/11/95, Volume 1, Number 08
Publication Date 09/11/1995
Content Type

Date: 09/11/1995

By Elizabeth Wise

AS the world speculates anxiously on the future of the Middle East peace process in the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, European Union officials have underlined their determination to help acting Premier Shimon Peres build on his predecessor's work.

They were quick to emphasise this week that Israel's close relationship with the Union would not change.

“The disappearance of a remarkable statesman cannot change the ship's course,” commented one Commission official.

“We would like to go ahead with business as usual,” said another. “There is no reason to assume the peace process won't stay on track. Our main concern is to support Mr. Rabin's successor.”

That should pose no difficulties, as Peres has good relations with all the EU foreign ministers and with many of the Union's leaders. While Rabin, whose term as Israel's ambassador to Washington in the late 1960s cemented his political and cultural ties with the Americans, was geared more towards the United States, Peres played a key role in the Socialist International, the world federation of socialist parties, and developed associations with Europeans which EU officials say will make him more prone to look towards the EU for partnership.

But EU officials stress they are not seeking to capitalise on that difference in outlook. “The US and EU interests in the region may seem divergent, but their goal is the same: peace,” said one. “We could have profited from it if we were competing with the US, but we are not.”

While the US normally has the most influence in Israeli politics, it is Europe which takes the lead in its economic development.

Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, the US envoy to the Union, agrees that through his travels as foreign minister and prime minister, Peres has forged “close and deep ties” with European leaders, “but not at the expense of the US relationship, which he understands to be of primary importance to Israel”.

He added: “There will not be any break in US-Israel relations.”

Peres showed he could hold his ground against France and Germany when last week, ignoring opposition from Paris, Bonn and most European capitals, he pushed for a regional development bank for the Middle East during the economic conference in Amman, Jordan. The bank, strongly supported by Washington, was Peres's brainchild.

EU officials say their support for Israel was never geared towards Rabin or Peres personally, but towards normalising relations “in the difficult triangle of Israeli, Arab, European relations”.

They say the shock of Rabin's murder may cause Israelis to rethink the direction they want to take in pursuing the peace process, but Europeans have no reason to backtrack from their commitment to the process.

“On the contrary,” said one Commission official, adding: “This assassination shows even more clearly the necessity to continue.”

Describing the Israel-Arab conflict as the “poison of Europe's southern flank,” the official said the EU had a material interest in peace for the region as the only way to ensure economic growth.

Israeli diplomats in Brussels also say they expect EU-Israel ties to continue “without any change whatsoever”, stressing that “Shimon Peres attaches great importance to the role Europe plays in the framework of the peace process”.

They say Peres will probably stress three themes in his dealings with European governments: that they should continue their financial aid to the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza; that they should carry on with their work in helping to organise and monitor Palestinian elections; and that they should proceed with plans for a regional framework for economic development around the Mediterranean Sea.

“That is Peres' great vision for the Middle East - a wide area of cooperation and economic exchanges,” the diplomat said.

As foreign minister, Peres was due to further that cause on 26 November when ministers of the EU and a dozen North African and Middle Eastern nations gather in Barcelona to inaugurate their Mediterranean trading zone.

After the seven days of mourning for Rabin, Peres may name a new foreign minister. But Israeli newspapers speculate that he will retain the foreign affairs portfolio in addition to his duties as prime minister. Rabin had held the defence portfolio, which Peres has given to former army chief of staff and Interior Minister Ehud Barak.

Before Rabin's death, Peres was also expected in Brussels on 20 November to sign Israel's association accord with the Union, a package of economic, commercial and political benefits agreed partly to reward Israel for its constructive role in the Middle East peace process. Israel will also benefit from participating in EU scientific research schemes.

The accord is expected to be signed at that meeting as planned, but it is not yet known whether Peres himself will attend.

In addition, delegations from the European Parliament and Israel's Knesset will meet on 15 and 16 November in Strasbourg to exchange views on recent developments in the peace process and on the Union's Mediterranean policy.

The four Israeli delegates represent left-wing and right-wing parties as well as Likud, the main opposition party, and Meretz, the party ruling in coalition with Peres' Labour party.

The EU-Israel parliamentary dialogue, pursued during once- or twice-yearly meetings since 1975, makes the relationship one of the European Parliament's strongest, officials there say.

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