After what it sees as President Bush's tilt toward Israel, the European Union is indicating that it wants to play a larger role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- with an eye toward promoting Palestinian interests.
In a series of under-reported statements after Bush's perceived watershed meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on April 14, senior European officials have been hinting at greater European involvement on the ground and a new get-tough policy with Israel.
Addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg on April 21, Chris Patten, the E.U. commissioner for external relations, declared bluntly that the Europeans are ready to help rehabilitate the Gaza Strip after Israel's promised withdrawal next year, on condition that the Israel Defense Forces guarantee "not to destroy again what we build."
Speaking in Tel Aviv the same day, Giancarlo Chevallard, E.U. ambassador to Israel, warned that the European Union intends to link the level of ties with Israel to the Jewish State's "commitment to peacemaking."
Top European officials also have been meeting with their American counterparts to coordinate the precise role the union can play in the context of the Gaza withdrawal. This will be discussed further early next month at a meeting of the "Quartet" -- a diplomatic grouping of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia that produced the "road map" peace plan.
The European Union began its campaign for a more significant role in the Gaza process by sending Javier Solana, its foreign policy point man, to Washington for an April 20 meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Afterward, Solana outlined three principles of E.U. thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Nothing should be done to prejudge the outcome of final-status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, the Quartet should coordinate its policy moves and the withdrawal from Gaza should be carried out in an "appropriate manner."
All three principles implied criticism of Bush. In the European view, the American president prejudged issues of borders and refugees by saying the demographic realities on the ground -- that is, Israeli settlements -- should be taken into account in setting final borders, and that refugees should return to a future Palestinian state rather than to Israel.
Moreover, in declaring his "new" policy, Bush acted alone, without consulting his European partners, and did nothing to coordinate the Gaza withdrawal with the Palestinians.
Powell is taking the European sense of slight seriously. The day after his meeting with Solana, he approached Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos -- who served for seven years as E.U. special envoy to the Middle East -- urging him to help with the Gaza plan.
The Europeans would like to play a role in coordinating the withdrawal with the Palestinians. They maintain that this is essential if the pullback is to create a new peace dynamic.
Patten made the point in his address to the European Parliament: "Our aim must be that Israelis recognize again the Palestinian Authority as their partner in the peace process. The objective should be to hand over Gaza and parts of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority -- not to Hamas -- and to ensure that the handover takes place in an orderly fashion, not in a way that leads to more chaos and violence."
Patten suggests that the Europeans, rather than the Americans, could help bring the Palestinians into a positive process with Israel. It's the Europeans, he points out, who more than anyone else have funded Palestinian projects; and it was constructive European influence that helped P.A. Finance Minister Salam Fayyad achieve transparency and accountability on budget procedures, in line with economic reforms the Quartet demanded of the Palestinian Authority.
What seems to be shaping up is a complex carrot-and-stick policy in which the United States encourages Israel and puts pressure on the Palestinians, while the Europeans do the reverse. Patten made clear that Europe is prepared to continue its humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians and help rebuild their economic infrastructure. But at the same time he was highly critical of Israel.
"We are certainly prepared to continue our humanitarian assistance and to support the rebuilding of the infrastructure of those areas from which the Israel Defense Forces withdraw," he said in Strasbourg.
The Europeans are not making do with mere criticism: They intend to use their economic clout to exert political pressure on Israel. Europe is Israel's largest trading partner, and Israel has a preferential trade agreement with E.U. countries.
It took Israel years to negotiate the agreement, and for years it has been trying to upgrade it. Now the Europeans say bluntly that they intend to create a linkage between their economic ties with Israel and the way Israel deals with the Palestinian issue.
At his Tel Aviv news conference April 21, Chevallard declared, "Up till now we kept the strengthening of bilateral relations with Israel separate from the regional diplomatic process. From this point on they will be part of one complex."
He did not envision sanctions on Israel, but said the Europeans would enhance or downgrade their ties with Israel depending on its peacemaking performance.
He added that the Europeans expected that Israel would "recognize that the E.U. has a large role to play in the Middle East" and, in the future, he suggested that Israel consult not only with the United States, as it had on the Gaza plan, but with Europe as well.
Some Israeli analysts believe the Europeans may even suggest an alternative plan to the one Bush and Sharon agreed to in the White House.
It's more likely, however, that they will seek a role within the framework of the Israeli-American plan and will use their support for the Palestinians to make inroads in the Arab world, where the United States is struggling, partly because of its support for Israel and partly because of the situation in Iraq.