EU Foreign Ministers Call for Palestinian State

European Union foreign ministers on Saturday criticized the United States' Mideast policies and offered a blueprint for reviving peace talks that envisions the creation of a Palestinian state that would be recognized by Israel and admitted to the United Nations.

The United States balked at the broad EU ideas put forward so far, saying the emphasis should be on moving toward a cease-fire and pressing the Palestinians to crack down further on anti-Israeli militants.

There was no immediate reaction from Israel or the Palestinians to the EU's guidelines. But they appeared likely to be rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has demanded a period of calm in Mideast violence before any negotiations resume. Israel and the United States have long resisted European attempts at mediation in the Mideast conflict.

But the EU comments showed new divisions with Washington over the Middle East. Foreign ministers from the 15-member European Union said a new political initiative was needed because the U.S. and Israeli emphasis on first reaching a cease-fire had not been successful.

The differences over the Mideast came as European leaders have increasingly expressed concern over U.S. foreign policy — particularly what they worry is a simplistic, go-it-alone approach in the war on terrorism.

The creation of a Palestinian state must be the "starting point of a negotiating process," French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said as he presented outlines of a the French initiative to his colleagues.

Under the blueprint, the Palestinians would hold elections, then a state would be declared, recognized by Israel and given membership in the United Nations. Negotiations for a final Mideast settlement would follow.

The broad ideas do not address some of the most fundamental and contentious issues, such as the borders of the Palestinian state.

Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, the meeting's chairman, said it would be developed further in another foreign ministers meeting on Feb. 18 and a mid-March European summit in Barcelona.

"We don't want to be different just for the sake of being different. But we need to relaunch and nourish the peace process, which today is totally blocked," Vedrine said.

In recent months, the United States and the European Union had been taking a relatively unified position on the Middle East. The Europeans, who are seen as tilting toward the Palestinians, had taken an increasingly tough stance with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, calling on him to rein in militants.

But now EU officials are expressing impatience with Washington's hands-off attitude toward peace talks and what many see as its pro-Israel bent and pressure on the Palestinians.

Javier Solana, the EU's chief foreign and security chief, said there can be no peace in the Middle East without putting "politics back at the center of gravity," rather than cracking down on militants.

The United States has scaled back its involvement in the region, putting efforts on hold after an envoy failed to work out a cease-fire late last year. The Bush administration has strongly criticized Arafat, saying he has failed to crack down on militants.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. and international efforts should continue "to keep the focus right now on the need for Chairman Arafat to take steps against the violence."

Asked by reporters Friday about the EU ideas, Boucher said "introducing other elements that divert the attention from this focus doesn't really move the situation forward."

Vedrine outlined the following steps, but gave no timeline:

— Palestinian elections "to support the Palestinian Authority's popular legitimacy in its efforts to crack down" on extremists. These could be general elections or a vote for a legislative council.

— For the elections, Israeli troops in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would withdraw to the positions they held before September 2000, when the violence erupted, and lift travel restrictions.

— The newly declared Palestinian state and Israel would sign "a declaration of non-belligerency," open negotiations and sign a peace accord.

The differences over the Israel-Palestinian conflict were the latest trans-Atlantic frictions over foreign policy and the next steps in the war on terrorism.

On Saturday, EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten said President Bush's branding of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil" was "deeply unhelpful." In an interview with Britain's The Guardian newspaper, he said the administration's approach to the rest of the world was simplistic.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer agreed. "We need to fight against terrorism with determination," he told reporters here. "But we must also look at the social and economic roots of that problem."

On Friday, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin expressed concern that proposed increases in U.S. defense spending suggest an increasing emphasis on military means.

"We can't reduce all the world's problems to the ... fight against terrorism," Jospin said.