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Arab Delegates Protest Mideast Crisis at Meeting with EU, Israeli Diplomats - 2002-04-23

Arab delegates walked out of a meeting with European Union and Israeli diplomats in Valencia, Spain to protest Israel's military action on Palestinians in the West Bank. The two-day summit of foreign ministers of the fifteen EU nations and twelve North African and Mideast states is being overshadowed by the Middle East crisis.

The European-Mediterranean summit is one of a number of international encounters that has been sponsored by Spain since it assumed the six-month, rotating presidency of the European Union in January. It's purpose is to stimulate economic, political and cultural ties between the 15 members of the EU and countries of the Mediterranean basin.

However, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has cast its shadow over the meeting from the very beginning. Last week Syria and Lebanon announced they would not attend the summit because of what they called "crimes" committed during Israel's assault on Palestinian territories.

Spain is playing an active role in trying to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was keen to provide an international venue outside of the United Nations for Israel to meet with moderate Arab countries.

That hope was stifled Monday evening when delegates from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority walked out of the assembly hall as Israel's deputy foreign minister, Michael Melchior, was about to speak. On Tuesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is scheduled to attend the summit.

Nevertheless, in its first day the EU-Mediterranean summit did manage to witness a comprehensive agreement with Algeria which provides for cooperation in education and culture and for combatting crime, money-laundering, drugs and terrorism. Participating in the signing ceremony were Spanish Prime Minister, José María Aznar, EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner, Chris Patten, and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

During the ceremony, Mr. Aznar said that September 11 had brought a "spirit of understanding" among countries which, far from becoming involved in a clash of civilizations, have felt the need to foster efforts against terrorism, the common enemy of culture and civilization.

Spain has made the fight against terrorism one of the major objectives of its presidency of the EU.