Israeli and Arab ministers meet in Crete

The US-backed peace “road map” won praise from both Israeli and Arab officials on Monday, when they met on the island of Crete at a meeting organised by the European Union

EU officials held talks with Arab
and Israeli diplomats

Diplomats said participants in the talks – held a day after the Israeli cabinet approved the plan, sent out strong signals that the “road map” to peace was a workable blueprint for peace.

The plan was drafted by the so-called Quartet – the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union.

“We are at the start of a new era in the Middle East,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher told reporters after meeting his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom on the sidelines of the EU-Mediterranean meeting, which continues on Tuesday.

“The road map is very clear. I think it is do-able now that the Israelis and Arabs have accepted it.”

The document is considered to be the most ambitious peace blue-print in two years.

Palestinian leaders accepted the “road map” last month.

But the Israeli cabinet, which voted in favour of the road map on Sunday, qualified their approval by passing a resolution denying Palestinian refugees the right of return.

US officials said US President George W Bush planned to meet the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers next week to discuss the plan, possibly in Jordan’s Red Sea port city Aqaba. He may also hold separate talks with other Arab leaders.

The first phase of the plan calls for an immediate freeze to Israeli settlement expansions and dismantling of outposts erected since March 2001. Palestinians are required to end human bombing attacks against Israelis.
“(The plan) can bring us a new future, a better future and might bring a glimmer of hope in the region,” Shalom said.    

Also meeting counterparts from Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, Shalom said Arab countries were more “courageous” after the toppling of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and could now
contribute more actively to peace in the region.

Shalom, however, made no mention of Israeli reservations and objections of the roadmap, instead placing the onus on Arabs.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Al
Shara (R) speaking to European
Commissioner for Foreign Affaires
Cris Patten (L)

“I hope that today’s meetings with Arab foreign ministers will create a better atmosphere that will help them convince the Palestinians to move forward for peace.

Since the threat of Saddam Hussein was removed they (Arab states) are more courageous,” he said.

The Palestinians right of return and the dismantling of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land are extremely divisive  issues in Israeli politics. 

Analysts suggest they could prove too difficult to overcome.

Immediate implentation

 EU foreign policy chie,f Javier Solana, said the 15-nation bloc would support efforts to implement the plan and called for swift action.

“Now what we need is…to make it (the road map) begin to move,” Solana said. “It has to be implemented.”

He said the fact that Syria, Israel’s long-time foe, had sent its foreign minister to the meeting, after sending low-level delegations for eight years, was a sign of hope. “That is a sign that things are moving,” he said.

It is the first time in three years that Syria has taken part in a non-United Nations’ meeting with representatives from Israel.

Syria said it was ready for peace talks but reiterated its long-standing position that the talks would have to pick up where they left off, over the return of the Golan heights seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

“Syria is ready to resume peace talks from where they stopped and they must be based on Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 and… the principle of land for peace,” Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Al Shara said.