Secretary of State Colin Powell's Middle East peace mission has won strong endorsement from the European Union. The Europeans have for weeks been calling for more U.S. involvement in ending the violence plaguing the region. The European Parliament has taken the unprecedented step of calling for the 15-nation bloc to impose trade sanctions on Israel.
EU officials are increasingly frustrated with Israel and its offensive against the Palestinians. They say Israel's crackdown on the Palestinian Authority and its leader, Yasser Arafat, is not going to improve the Jewish state's security, but only make it more vulnerable.
They are offended that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refused to let two of their top envoys meet last week with Mr. Arafat. And they are annoyed that their calls for Israel to pull its forces out of Palestinian territories have gone unheeded, proof, they admit, of the lack of European clout in the troubled region.
Now, they see a glimmer of hope that Secretary Powell might be able to, in the words of one EU official, "get the Israelis to come to their senses." The European Union feels the United States, as Israel's longtime friend and protector, has a special responsibility to use its influence on the Jewish state to re-start peace talks with the Palestinians.
EU officials harbor no illusions about Mr. Powell's chances of getting Mr. Sharon to withdraw his troops from Palestinian areas or in persuading Mr. Arafat to rein in Palestinian suicide bombers.
But as EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten says, if Mr. Powell can not achieve these objectives, it is hard to imagine anyone else who can.
"He is uniquely well placed to make progress, but he has got one hell of a difficult job. But he is a man of immense personal and political authority. He carries with him all the prestige of the world's only superpower, super-duper power, as someone called it recently. And the United States has been a great friend to, and of, Israel. And if Mr. Sharon does not listen to Colin Powell and the rest of the international community, then God help the Middle East," Mr. Patten said.
As Mr. Patten was putting his hopes in Mr. Powell's mission, the European Parliament called for the 15 EU member states to slap trade sanctions on Israel. Lawmakers voted 269-208 to urge the EU to suspend its so-called Association Agreement with the Jewish state. The agreement gives Israeli exports to the bloc preferential treatment.
The resolution is non-binding on EU member governments and has no legal force. But it reflects public opinion in much of Western Europe, and raises the possibility that the European Union could play its strongest card against the Sharon government.
Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, whose country holds the EU rotating presidency, says the emphasis should be on stopping the violence in the Middle East. But, speaking through an interpreter, he says no scenario should be ruled out.
"What we are currently looking at is the possibility of convening the Association Council, in keeping with the treaty between the European Union and Israel, to analyze the situation and have a thorough going political dialogue as to what the parties should do in the framework of our agreement in order to attain peace and guarantee security. And, as a function of that possibility, we would contemplate the various scenarios," Mr. Pique said.
Asked to be more specific, Mr. Pique later admitted that the European Union is beginning to look at sanctions and will discuss the matter next Monday at a Foreign Ministers' meeting in Luxembourg.
EU trade sanctions could hurt Israel's economy, which sent $8 billion in exports to the bloc in the year 2000.
But diplomats say the European Union is unlikely to take such measures because of opposition from Germany, Britain, Denmark, and the Netherlands.
The European Parliament resolution also seeks an arms embargo on Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli defense ministry says Germany has already delayed delivery of key parts for its Merkava tanks. EU officials say other EU countries have suspended shipments to Israel of military equipment that could be used against civilians.