EU pulls back from confronting US over Gaza

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Judy Dempsey in Tullamore, Ireland | Financial Times | 18 April 2004

European Union foreign ministers have pulled back from an all-out confrontation with the US over President George W. Bush's support for Israel's unilateral "disengagement" plan from the Gaza Strip. The decision to soften their opposition was made hours before the assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantissi, ordered by Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, and sharply condemned by the Europeans. The shift came after an intense debate by EU foreign ministers at an informal meeting in Tullamore, with Jack Straw, British foreign secretary, taking the lead in supporting the US-backed plan. Belgium, however, accused the EU of "collective blindness" for accepting Washington's endorsement of a change of Israel's 1967 borders without negotiating with the Palestinians. Louis Michel, Belgian foreign minister, said the EU was engaged in "collective self-denial", while Michel Barnier, France's new foreign minister, said the Palestinians had been humiliated. But Joschka Fischer, German foreign minister, backed by Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, pushed the EU towards a pragmatic approach rather than risk another transatlantic row over the Middle East. They argued that the EU faced the choice of trying to influence how Israel would withdraw from Gaza and particularly how to help the Palestinians take control over it, or risk losing long-term influence in the region.