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EU Rejects Severing Contacts with Arafat

EU Rejects Severing Contacts with Arafat, Solana Confirms

No Alternative to Roadmap, Ivanov Tells Palestinian President

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana on Sunday rejected demands by Israel to sever contacts with the elected Palestinian President Yasser Arafat during talks with Israeli officials aimed at reviving the “roadmap” peace plan, as Russia intensified its efforts to support the fragile Middle East peace process by sending high-ranking diplomats to the region.

EU envoy Solana arrived in Tel Aviv from Iran to begin two days of meetings Sunday that are due to include talks with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday. He met with the Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom on Sunday.

Solana is championing the “roadmap” peace plan that envisions the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005. Israeli officials are pushing the European Union to sever contact with President Arafat and declare the political wing of the Islamic Resistance Movement “Hamas” a terrorist organization.

Solana rejected demands by Israel to sever contacts with Arafat.

"We will continue contacts with Palestinians and the Palestinian president," Solana said Sunday after talks with Shalom.

"We respect any decision by a democratic country but one has to respect our position that has not changed," he added.

Israel has been urging the EU to follow the lead of the United States and cut off all ties with Arafat.

Solana also criticized Israel’s construction of the Apartheid Segregation Wall (ASW) Israel is building on Palestinian land it occupied in 1967, which Israeli officials euphemistically call a “security fence.”

"We are not very happy with the fence," said the EU’s top diplomat.

"We can understand that for security reasons it can be built in some places but we cannot understand that a fence can become political and change the borders."

Israel insists that the barrier is intended merely to stop infiltrations by Palestinians and has no political connotation. The Palestinians see it as a grab of more than 50 percent of the West Bank land when completed and a bid to pre-empt the borders of any two-state settlement.

Moreover, Solana expressed reservations about the Israeli government’s determination to pursue Hamas activists after a series of air strikes in Gaza, which have extra-judicially killed 13 Palestinians in 5 air strikes during 10 days only, including a number of civilians.

"We recognize that Israel has a right to defend itself but it must avoid certain acts which can affect constructive relations between the two parties," he said.

As regards the Israeli demand to blacklist Hamas as a terrorist organization, a decision on the issue is expected to be made at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Italy next month amid pressure for a U-turn from countries such as Britain.

"We will discuss it soon but the main thing is to cut the financial resources of the terrorist organizations," said Solana.

"We will do our utmost to cut the financial resources of the terrorist organizations," Solana told reporters in a joint press conference with Shalom in Jerusalem.

Shalom said no distinction should be drawn between the two branches of the Hamas.

"The time has come once and for all that Hamas will be treated as a terrorist organization," he said.

Solana was expected to meet Israeli PM Sharon on Monday morning at the end of his visit. He was also due to meet John Wolf, the man entrusted by US President George W. Bush with overseeing the implementation of the troubled “roadmap” for peace, at a meeting Sunday evening, said Solana’s spokeswoman Cristina Gallach.

The roadmap -- sponsored by the US, EU, Russia and the United Nations -- has made scant progress since its launch in June. An upsurge in violence due to Israel’s insistence on persisting with its policy of extra-judicial assassinations has raised fears that the entire process could collapse.

Diplomats told Israeli Ha’aretz fear is mounting in Europe that the "Quartet" of mediators had been sidelined since the June 4 Aqaba summit where the “roadmap” was launched.

"The Quartet has taken a back seat since Aqaba and ... it was left to the Americans to do the running," said one EU diplomat. "It's time to give a positive impetus to the process again."

He said the EU would probably call for a Quartet meeting before or during the United Nations General Assembly in mid-September.

An EU official told Ha’aretz that US Secretary of State Colin Powell did phone Solana last week, however, asking him to put pressure on Palestinian President Arafat to help end the bloodshed. Solana had a long telephone conversation with Arafat last Saturday.

Solana however decided not to visit Palestine National Authority (PNA) leaders during his current visit to Israel. Sharon was declared "too busy" to meet Solana in May after the EU envoy insisted on meeting Arafat.

PNA Calls for Revival of Roadmap, Russia Intensifies Efforts

Meanwhile, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabeel Shaath said Sunday the PNA saw no alternative to the current US-backed Middle East peace plan and urged the world community to help revive the deadlocked initiative.

"Our resolve to return to peace is still there. Our commitment to end all killings and to have a real cease-fire is there," Shaath told a news conference at the end of a three-day visit to New Delhi.

"We see no other alternative that is viable and could produce any results," he said, adding that the plan took nine months to draft and it would take as much time if a new initiative had to be launched.

In the meantime, Russia intensified its efforts to revive the peace process.

According to the information reported on Saturday by the department of information and press of the Russian foreign ministry, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov telephoned President Arafat on Saturday.

Ivanov informed Arafat that he dispatched Andrei Vdovin, his special representative on Middle East settlement, to the region, Pravda reported. The minister indicated that Andrei Vdovin left for the region to provide further assistance to overcome the critical situation in Palestinian-Israeli relations.

The Russian foreign ministry reported Igor Ivanov expressed his deep concern over the new outburst of violence in the region, which may threaten the implementation of the "roadmap."

Ivanov stressed that the critical situation could be overcome only if all participating parties consistently fulfill their obligations under the "roadmap,” if cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians in the area of security is restored and political dialogue is renewed.

“There is no alternative to the roadmap,” Ivanov reportedly told Arafat.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov met with Palestinian and Israeli officials earlier this week, focusing on measures to "prevent a new, dangerous outburst of violence," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday.

During his talks with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, Fedotov "positively assessed the intention of Palestinian leadership ... to take resolute action to preserve ceasefire and neutralize extremists and organizers of acts of terror," the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

During his meetings in Israel, Fedotov and Israeli diplomats agreed that "the future of Mideast peace process mustn't fall hostage to terrorists and extremists," the ministry added.

Following up on Fedotov's trip, the Russian Foreign Ministry's special envoy for the Middle East, Andrei Vdovin, headed to the region Friday.

"Russia will do all it can to return the Israelis and the Palestinians to the peace process," Vdovin said before departure, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency. "The consultations will continue to prevent a spirit of confrontation from gaining the upper hand."

Russia co-sponsors the Palestinian – Israeli peace process along with the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.

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